- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Traps are being used to catch snowy owls alive at Gerald R. Ford International Airport after staff members shot nine in the last two months to ensure aircraft safety.

Snowy owls are out in force in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest this winter, thanks to a population boom in their Arctic breeding lands. Birdwatchers have reported spotting them more frequently than usual in several places around Michigan.

Airport staff cannot compromise flight safety due to the unprecedented influx of snowy owls, airport spokeswoman Tara Hernandez told The Grand Rapids Press (http://bit.ly/1c0Yh4G ). The owls are known to fly low and could collide with aircraft.

“As much as we can prepare for it, you don’t expect something like this,” she said of the owl population.

The airport has a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit to control snowy owls if they are deemed a safety hazard.

No collisions between planes and owls have been reported at the airport this winter, but experts say there have been close calls. And in 2009, the newspaper reported, a snowy owl flew into an airplane at Ford airport causing $310,000 of damage.

Aaron Bowden, a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife specialist, said he has seen owls at Ford airport fly within feet of planes.

“They like to sit right at the edge of the pavement and it takes a lot to get them spooked, which generally means an aircraft taking off,” he said. “They then fly directly across the runway, right about the same height as the nose or wing. I don’t think it can be understood enough the seriousness of the hazard.”

Airport officials began talking about a trap-and-release program for the owls more than a month ago. Bowden, who handles the program, set two traps on the airfield on Tuesday. Bowden releases captured owls at least 50 miles away.

He’s trapped about 20 snowy owls at airports across the region in the last six weeks and, in the past, has trapped other birds at Ford airport including a red-tail hawk. In recent months, Ford airport officials have worked to scare off owls with horns.

Airports are attractive to snowy owls because they are similar to the tundra habitat where the birds breed, experts say.

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

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