A tough loss

Scott WeidensaulUpdates24 Comments

Philly, wearing his GPS tag on Jan. 9. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Philly, wearing his GPS tag on Jan. 9. (©Scott Weidensaul)

As soon as I heard Jenny Martin’s voice on the phone early this morning, I knew it wasn’t good news.

Jenny is the USDA Wildlife Services technician at Philadelphia International Airport, and she’d just gotten word that the crew of a cargo plane had reported hitting a snowy owl at 7 a.m. today. The airport operations crew quickly recovered the bird — and it was Philly, our tagged male, dead.

We banded Philly on Jan. 9, and moved him 40 miles west to the safer environs of Lancaster County. Within two days he’d returned to the airport, though, and had thwarted a number of attempts since then to recapture and move him.

In fact, this week Jenny had been using a Swedish goshawk trap (a huge, cage-like device) to try to entice him, and we were going to make another full-court press Friday and Saturday to trap him.

We’ve been worried since the beginning that he was living on borrowed time, not only because he liked to hang out at the end of runway 27R, but because his favorite evening hunting perch was right next to the northbound lanes of I-95 in front of the airport. You may recall that he gave us a bad moment last week during a snowstorm, when we thought he might have been hit by a car.

We always knew that there was a good chance we’d lose one or more of our tagged owls this winter. The snowies we’re seeing in this irruption are largely young birds, and that inexperience — combined with the natural naiveté of snowy owls about humans in general — is a dangerous combination. Some of our other owls are frequenting airports and highways, but for sheer danger, Philly was in by far the riskiest place.

It’s also a reminder of how especially dangerous airports are for snowy owls — and in turn for the planes they sometimes hit. There have been a number of snowies killed by plane strikes at airports across the Northeast this winter, and each one is a risk not just for the owl, but for the plane, it’s crew and passengers.

That’s why SNOWstorm collaborators like Norman Smith in Boston have been relocating so many — more than 50 in Norman’s case that he’s moved from Logan Airport.

Any researcher tries not to get too attached to their wild study subjects. But still, this has been a rough loss for us.

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24 Comments on “A tough loss”

    1. We were a little surprised he didn’t at least cross I-95 to hunt in Heinz NWR, but it’s a pretty closed-in place compared with the airport, and he was getting a ton of rodents on the airport grounds and highway medians.

    1. Don’t know yet — I’m leaving shortly to drive to PHL to see. It’s possible we can recycle the transmitter to a new owl, but it’s a delicate piece of technology to be hit by a plane and survive.

    2. No! It’s an electronic device to transmit location data, not to be confused with a lightly charred slice of bread. Tastes great with butter and some nice marmalade, the toast, not the GPS. :-)

    3. Looks like the side of the transmitter took the brunt of the impact, but there’s still a decent chance that the wizards at CTT can download the final six days of data once they have the unit. They may also be able to recycle components like the solar panel, which wasn’t damaged. It’s hard to imagine that the damage from a collision with a moving 767 wasn’t much worse, frankly — the white transmitter case showed orange paint from the plane. And Philly himself will be preserved as a museum specimen, as well as contributing tissue samples for toxicology and genetics work. Not the best of all outcomes, obviously, but the best we can do under the circumstances.

  1. I was so hoping that Philly would make and that he would stay with us in Lancaster County but it was not to be. Such a terrible loss.


  3. You do it because you care….how can we not get your hearts bruised. Many more will benefit from the effort. I work with animals for a living…sometimes they just won’t “agree to the plan”

  4. I always admire the people who gallantly work for conservation of wildlife, who need to put their emotions aside to do their work. My sister and I saw Philly in Lititz, and got immediately emotionally attached. We are both very sad today. Keep up the great work!

  5. Sad! I was hoping he would make it. I looked for him from Hog Island Road all the time but never got a glimpse of him. Any pictures from the roadside of him anyone would like to share? I was even there looking for him 2 hours after he was hit as I didn’t know it happened! Got to talk to some interesting people who were also looking for him from time to time. One was a student from the Davidson School at Elwyn who I’m sure if he finds out will be very upset. He walked over 5 miles to look for him and I don’t think he ever saw him either.

  6. “Philly’s” life was not in vain, as he inspired unprecedented numbers of people to connect with nature in unusual and amazing ways. Snowy Owls in southeastern PA this winter may have sparked more conversations than a year’s worth of blog or facebook posts. This Snowy Owl invasion is providing a historic opportunity to inspire, connect and engage communities with wildlife and conservation. Thank you Philly and all your arctic friends!

  7. I’m sorry Jenny and I really appreciate the efforts that you made over the past weeks following Philly and helping to try and re-locate him. Philly provided a lot of information to the researchers.

    For example, information on this design of transmitter – an update stated Philly had “preened his back feathers almost completely over the solar panel that powers the transmitter. While it’s been holding a charge very well on sunny days, would it continue to do so when we got heavy overcast and storms”?

    Information on behavior – Philly returned to the airport despite being relocated to an environment which provided him with a lower probability of encountering lethal challenges – was this territorial drive? i.e. he had already established the airport as his home base and didn’t seem to care/understand about jumbo jets, cars, noise, etc.

    Finally, information on trapping methods. He forced everyone to come up with new and inventive ways of capturing snowy owls.

    Scientist, researchers etc. can only make so many calculations/predictions on paper from past studies etc. – the rest of what we learn comes from owls like Philly who by “stepping outside the box” gave us more insight into Snowy owl behavior, and encouraged continued innovative thinking on transmitter and trapping methods.

    The song “Philadelphia Freedom” comes to mind.

  8. It’s sad that they can’t use trained dogs to keep all birds away from the airport. It’s a risk for the birds and the people on the planes. This is as sad as the female eagle being killed @ Norfolk Airport.

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