Project SNOWstorm 2021-22

Project SNOWstorm is one of the world's largest collaborative research projects focusing on snowy owls, staffed by a largely volunteer team of scientists, banders and wildlife veterinarians, and funded entirely by tax-deductible donations from the public. With your help, we're continuing our work in this, our eighth winter, learning more about these majestic Arctic predators. Explore our site  to read updates, and see the latest maps showing the movements of the snowy owls we are tracking. 

Our 2021-22 plans are summarized below, but you can also read more in-depth information on our site.
High-tech tracking
Since our founding in the winter of 2013-14, we've used high-tech GPS transmitters to follow more than 90 snowy owls on their travels between the coastlines, cities and farmland they inhabit in winter, and their breeding grounds in the Arctic. This work has uncovered previously unknown behavior, and shed light on poorly understood aspects of the snowy owl's life. Explore the maps!  

Our plans for the 2021-22 winter season include a continuation of our work with colleagues in Québec, tracking snowy owls relocated from the Montréal–Trudeau International Airport in order to test conclusions based on Rebecca McCabe's doctoral research on what approaches work best in keeping owls away from airports. (See "Analysis and Publications" below.) We will again be working with Matt Solensky from the USGS Northern Prairie Research Center in North Dakota to track snowy owls on the Great Plains, and hope to tag, for the first time, snowies wintering in alpine areas of Acadia National Park in Maine, both an unusual habitat and an area where human disturbance may be a significant factor. We also plan to continue our tagging work in New York and Massachusetts.

We also expect to resume our work with colleagues in the International Snowy Owl Working Group to deploy satellite transmitters on young snowy owls about to leave their nests in the Arctic to learn about juvenile movements and mortality, a critical but until now missing piece of information. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to cancel both our 2020 and 2021 field work in the Canadian Arctic, where bush communities have been at exceptional risk from the pandemic, but we intend to expand our efforts to learn more about juvenile behavior and dispersal in 2022. 

Health and risks
Our team of wildlife veterinarians and pathologists, with help from the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, has necropsied more than 260 snowy owls that have been salvaged after dying from accidents, disease or injury -- by far the largest examination of the health and condition of wintering snowy owls even undertaken. We've found that while migrant owls are generally in good condition, there are worrisome signs that environmental toxins like mercury and rodent poisons are a serious threat to many snowy owls. Read about some initial findings. 

Combining our necropsy results with data from those by colleagues in the U.S. and Canada (totaling more than 360 owls) along with our extensive tracking data, we have just published a major analysis of the winter survival rate of immature snowy owls. We found that snowy owl mortality is primarily due to human activity, especially vehicle collisions, rather than starvation or disease as was once assumed. Juveniles, moving south in large numbers during irruption years, are especially susceptible to injury and death, in part because high densities during such flight years may force them into risky habitats.

Outreach and education
Everything we do at Project SNOWstorm is shared with the public; all of our tracking maps are available online and updated as new transmissions come in, allowing folks to follow the owls as we ourselves do. Our collaborating partners at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania are also developing school curricula based on our snowy owl work, and we happily cooperate with students and teachers who request our data for classroom projects and hands-on workshops.  

Analysis and publications
Project SNOWstorm's tracking work represents the largest set of winter movement data for snowy owls, and we're drilling down into it to see what it reveals about these Arctic migrants, the habitats they use, and how best to protect and conserve them. We've supported the just-completed doctoral research of Dr. Rebecca McCabe at McGill University, who explored a number of important aspects of snowy owl winter ecology, from survival and mortality rates to habitat associations, resident-vs.-nomadic movement types, and the responses of snowy owls trapped at airports to relocation. This work has been or is about to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, so our findings inform the wider conservation of snowy owls. 

Why is it important?
Snowy owls are beautiful and exciting -- but we also do this work because they face increasing threats in a rapidly changing world. They are at risk from vehicle collisions, plane strikes and electrocution from power lines. Their bodies accumulate pollutants like mercury and lead, or pesticide residues like DDE and rodenticides. When they show up near populated areas, they can sometimes be harassed (usually inadvertently) by humans who get too close, too often, to watch or take pictures. 

Because they breed in the highest latitudes of the Arctic, snowy owls are also among the species at greatest and most immediate risk from climate change, especially as winters there become warmer and wetter, interfering with the natural boom-and-bust cycles in their primary Arctic prey, lemmings. In some parts of the Arctic, lemming cycles have flat-lined in recent years, and snowy owls have ceased breeding in those areas. 

Finally, scientists now realize that, because snowy owls are highly nomadic, earlier estimates of their total population were badly inflated. More careful estimates suggest there are only about 28,000 in the world (IUCN Red List v3.1 2017) -- only a tenth as many as once thought, and thus much closer to the edge than anyone had feared.  Yet we do not know whether their numbers are stable, increasing or decreasing. That is why Project SNOWstorm is helping to underwrite the first comprehensive, global population assessment of snowy owls ever undertaken, in order to determine how close to the brink these birds may be.

For all of these reasons, we hope you'll consider supporting our work at Project SNOWstorm . Your donation is 501(c)(3) tax-deductible through our institutional home, the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania, and will help us understand and protect this magnificent hunter.

Direct contributions to Project SNOWstorm can also be made by check, payable to:
Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art
176 Water Company Rd.
Millersburg, PA 17061
Please indicate on the check that the gift is for Project SNOWstorm.


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Drew Weber
Millersburg, PA
Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art
Registered nonprofit
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