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VOLUNTEERS LEND ANOTHER OPTION TO

SNOWY OWLS AT AIRPORTS, RELOCATE FIRST OF TWO BIRDS

By Devi Shastri, Oshkosh Northwestern, Published 6:02 pm CT Dec. 29 2017

     It was cold the afternoon Frank Ujazdowski sat in his truck at Wittman Regional Airport and he was in it for the long haul.

     Yards away, Ujazdowski had his eye on a pigeon harnessed in the center of a bow net, and a snowy owl not too far away. It was just a matter of time before the owl would take the bait.

     Nearly a month before, a maintenance crew at the airport shot and killed a snowy owl that was perched near the active runway that day.

     “My thought is this,” Ujazdowski said. “You cannot put a price on human life. The reason airports have permits to trap or dispatch these birds is they can and are a danger to aircrafts. I didn’t like the idea that they had to shoot the owl, but I totally understood their situation.”

     After seven years as a falconer, Ujazdowski said he’d known about the airports resorting to lethal removal of birds for years. The Wittman incident was a chance to do something different.

     So, Ujazdowski volunteered to be the lead of six on-call falconers for the airport, waiting for hours for the chance to net the rare arctic bird. The process can be frustrating, he said. The first owl to land in his net got away. But, four hours later, his efforts were rewarded.

     On Friday, Ujazdowski watched as the snowy owl that he relocated from the Wittman Airport was released back into the wild north of New London. It took less than a week for the bird to gain some weight and be ready for release. It was only 10 degrees outside and many in the crowd shivered in the cold, but the falconer wore nothing more than a hooded sweater. Like the owl, Ujazdowski was in his element.

     “(Falconers) love the birds of prey and we want to preserve them, that’s the number one reason,” he said about donating his time. “The number two reason is I’m a people person and I love to work with people. It’s fun when you get together and you solve a problem – these owls were a problem and if I can help solve that problem … it’s just fun. It just feels good.”

Lethal measures 

     The day that ended in public outrage began with a little-known, and in Wittman Regional Airport’s case little-used, protocol.

Though the snowy owl is one of several protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Wittman Airport is one of many airports around the country to hold a permit allowing crews to use lethal measures to remove a bird that poses a threat to people or planes.

     Killing an animal is a last resort, said Airport Director Peter Moll, but a collision between a bird and a plane has major costs: threats that Wittman Airport is no stranger to.

     “A collision between an aircraft and a bird doesn’t end up good no matter how you slice it,” Moll said. “They’re almost always fatal to the bird but they can do a lot of damage to the aircraft. Two years ago we did have an aircraft that hit a bird and it did $300,000 in damage to the aircraft.”

     Pilot Doug Cooper was glad to see the snowy owl perching on a sign near the airport when he and his co-pilot landed in Oshkosh, and his co-pilot mentioned the bird to the control tower.

     “The intent of him mentioning it was more like, ‘check out this rare bird, it’s kind of neat to see,’” Cooper said.

     They pulled into the hangar where Cooper was cleaning in the plane when his co-pilot returned, saying he’d seen crew shoot the bird. Cooper called the control tower, which confirmed the owl had been shot.

Cooper was shocked.

     He called the Department of Natural Resources but got disconnected. Then he called the Audubon Society, eventually connecting with the Winnebago chapter’s president, Janet Wissink.

     “I got a phone call late in the afternoon from the pilot and he explained to me what had happened that day and he was quite upset,” Wissink said. “I was also upset. I didn’t realize there was the permitting process that allowed airport employees to take lethal methods to remove birds from the airport.”

     Moll said the airport crew used screamer shells and drove their vehicles near the owl to scare the bird off without any luck. The director said he didn’t hear about the incident until the next day and as the story spread, public outcry grew. Most people asked how there wasn’t another way to scare the birds off.

But then, the airport started getting threats.

     “It was kind of disconcerting to us that we did what we had to do, we tried to do the right thing,” Moll said. “But in the end there were some definite threats of bodily harm to some of our crew that was working that day. It made us all nervous.”

     By the end of the week, amid growing backlash the airport released a statement.

     Cooper said he couldn’t say if the decision to kill the owl was the right one for airport operations, but continued to wonder if the owl’s death could have been prevented. But he knew the bird was threatened in the wild.

“It just made me go, ‘I think we can do better as a society,’” Cooper said.

It turns out his call to Wissink the day of the shooting had already gotten the ball rolling.

Finding a solution 

     On Dec. 7, Wissink, Pat Fisher from The Feather Wildlife Rehab and Education Center and Ujazdowski sat in a meeting at Wittman Airport with Moll, Airport Operations Manager Pete Rausch, a representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Robert Warnke, chairman of the Winnebago County Board’s aviation committee.

     A new collaboration was on the table: on-call falconers would safely capture birds on the airport grounds and The Feather rehabilitation center could treat and release the owls in a safe place.

     “The airport people were very receptive to the idea,” Wissink said. “We told them that the bow nets cost $500 apiece. They offered to pay for one, the Audubon is paying for another. We’re also going to get a third one through an anonymous donor.”

     The volunteers have the training to work with the birds that will be increasingly needed as more snowy owls migrate south for the winter. More owls are moving south because warmer weather is increasing their food supply and, by extension, the number of owls being born.

     Wissink said she saw two owls at the airport in the first walk through. She said the open field with signs to perch on make the airport a comfortable spot for the birds, which scan the ground for prey. The ability to trap birds is especially important because they are less likely to be scared off by cars or loud noises because those threats are not common in the tundra they call home.

     The collaboration is allowing The Feather to help with researching the snowy owls as well, by working with Project SNOWstorm to take blood samples and put trackers on the birds before releasing them.

     “Birds are a great indicator of the health of our environment, which is why a lot of studies are done on birds,” Wissink said.

     The team of volunteers includes six falconers, the Winnebago Audubon Society and The Feather. They hope to expand the collaboration with airports in Green Bay and Outagamie County, Wissink said.

     The two owls caught so far are just the beginning, Ujazdowski said. Moll said the airport has been amazed with the falconers’ response time. Airport Operations Manager Pete Rausch has spent countless hours looking for the birds with the team, Ujazdowski said.

     Wissink said the second owl the team caught will need medical care for a fungal infection. Both owls were underweight when they came to the rehabilitation center and were treated for parasites. Once healthy and flying, the second owl will also be released in New London where the caretakers know the birds will have enough prey to hunt, Fisher said.

     “We learned something from it and I’m hoping the public learns something from it from our operational standpoint,” Moll said. “As I look at it there are so many positives that came from this.”

     Just over a month after the first owl was shot, about 20 people on the edge of a field north of New London gathered around a non-descript cardboard box in anticipation as the first relocated owl was lifted from the box and carefully handed to Doug Cooper. The pilot held the bird over his head and let go, watching it sweep low along the ground before sitting in the center of the field, blending in with the snow around it.

Jennifer Zettel contributed to this report.