They're big, white and fluffy, with round heads and giant yellow eyes. They're snowy owls, and they've been showing up in large numbers this winter at Logan International Airport, where Massport officials worry they could pose a threat to aircraft. So the Massachusetts Audubon Society has been removing owls at Logan and taking them to wilder places.
WBUR's health and science reporter Sacha Pfeiffer went along as one captured bird was released north of the city and has this story on why the snowies are flocking here this season.
STORY: In the basement of Mass Audubon's Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton is what's called the quarantine room. That's where injured or rescued animals are cared for. Norm Smith lifts up a towel covering one large cage — and there it is: an almost pure-white snowy owl with eyes like fat marbles the color of lemons.
NORM SMITH: "This guy is healthy and in very good condition. This is a young male. The males are actually smaller than the females."
Smith is the museum's director. He has the weathered face of a guy who spends a lot of time outdoors, and he captured this owl at Logan the day before. He says the airport's seventeen hundred acres have the largest known concentration of snowy owls in the Northeast.
SMITH: "We assume that it's because it looks very much like the Arctic tundra. It's short, mowed grass with little wet pools. There's a lot of food supply around there — there's rats and mice and waterfowl. Probably to them it looks more like home than any place else."
Many of the owls breed near the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada and some of them fly south for the winter. Smith has been rescuing snowies from Logan since 1981. The airport doesn't want to risk one of the birds getting sucked into a plane's engine and causing the kind of accident that forced a flight to crash-land in the Hudson River last month. Smith traps the owls with a net that leaves them unharmed.
SMITH: "It's been a good year for snowy owls. We've captured 29 snowy owls so far this winter. In most years you average about six to ten."
Many scientists believe snowy owls head south when there isn't enough food in the Arctic. But all the owls Smith has captured this year have had good body weight and healthy fat reserves. So Smith suspects the owls may be showing up in higher numbers here simply because they sense that their populations are getting too dense up north. In April they'll head back to the Arctic. But in the meantime this owl has to stay somewhere besides Logan Airport.
SMITH: "Next step is we're going to take the owl out of the cage here, hopefully, and put him in the carrying cage right there."
SOUND OF CAGE BEING OPENED
The owl sits on a small perch and watches calmly as Smith reaches into the cage. Smith suddenly grabs the owl by its legs. It starts flapping wildly to regain balance and it makes a snapping noise with its mouth.
SOUND OF OWL'S WINGS FLAPPING AND BEAK SNAPPING
SMITH: "That little clicking of the beak is a defense mechanism, saying, 'I'm big and strong and aggressive.' "
Smith says he isn't worried about being bitten but he does make sure he avoids the claws.
SMITH: "Each one of these individual talons has about 200 pounds of gripping pressure and could certainly do some significant damage. So you want to hold it by the legs. And you can see how the bird has calmed right down once you get the bird out."
Up close, you can see brown flecks the color of milk chocolate on the owl's mostly white feathers. You can also see tiny lice clustered around its eyes. Smith says that's a common parasite that uses the owl to stay warm but doesn't hurt the bird. The owl is almost hot to the touch, and Smith says that shows how its thick layers of feathers let it survive in the frigid Arctic.
SMITH: "Next step is to the box. We're going to place this bird in the box, close it up, and we're off to release it.
SOUND OF CAGE BEING SHUT
With the carrying case in hand, Smith heads to the parking lot and puts the owl in the back of his hybrid car.
SOUND IN PARKING LOT AS TRUNK OPENS AND CAR STARTS
SMITH: "In the trunk of the Mass Audubon Prius and now we're going to head up to Plum Island."
On the drive up, Smith explains that this bird isn't outfitted with a satellite transmitter, but some of them are.
SMITH: "Out of 12 birds that we put transmitters on, unfortunately three of those birds were shot in Massachusetts. That was something that we didn't expect. One of the birds someone actually cut the wings off and cut the feet off, as well, for, apparently, souvenirs."
At Plum Island in Newburyport, the river is frozen in rocky chunks and looks like tundra. Smith parks near an icy salt marsh and takes the owl out of the case, again grabbing it by its feet.
SMITH: "Ready to go. Now we'll take him over to the edge here."
But the sight of Smith holding a stunning white bird attracts attention. This happens a lot. A man drives up and gets out of his minivan.
MINIVAN MAN: "Am I interrupting?"
SMITH: "Not at all. How we doing?"
MINIVAN MAN: "Beautiful. Can I get my camera out, take some close-ups?"
SMITH: "You can certainly take a picture of it. This is a bird we caught at Logan airport and are just relocating to Plum Island here and letting it go."
MINIVAN MAN: "They're just so beautiful."
SOUND OF CAMERA CLICKING
SMITH: "All right — we're going to get a chance to see this bird go now. Ready?"
The owl flies away immediately and silently, heading straight for the wide-open salt marsh. First it skims the ground, then it soars up high.
SMITH: "Flying off into the sunset there, probably getting an orientation, figuring out what's going on and, gee, is this an area that I've been before and let me see what the surroundings are like."
Finally it lands on a post in the marsh.
SMITH: "Now it's sitting there and is going to probably go in a roosting mode for the day."
The owl has a leg band and a temporary pink color mark on its head to help identify it if it's spotted in coming months. By tracking the owls, Smith hopes to understand their migration routes better. He hopes this owl won't end up back at Logan airport. Once in a while an owl he's captured returns to the fields near the runways. But he'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, Smith will get ready for the next call to rescue a snowy owl.
This program aired on February 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.