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 tenth 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.
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 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.
Our 2022-23 plans are summarized below, but you can also read more in-depth information on our site and on our blog updates.
One of the most important elements of our research is understanding the winter ecology of snowy owls, using GPS/GSM transmitters that record the bird's location, altitude and flight speed as frequently as every six seconds. On-board temperature sensors and accelerometers add additional layers of data to help us understand how these birds hunt, migrate and survive both here on their more southerly wintering grounds, and in the Arctic.
In the past nine years we've tracked more than 110 Snowy Owls from Alaska and the Dakotas to the Great Lakes, New England, southern Canada and the mid-Atlantic, including their summers in the Arctic. Our tracking data has documented previously unknown behavior and shed light on poorly understood aspects of the snowy owl's life, both in their temperate wintering areas—the main focus of our work—as well as their breeding grounds in the North.
Owls and Airports
Because they are flat and treeless, airports are especially attractive to snowy owls -- and especially dangerous. Project SNOWstorm has, from the beginning, worked with airport authorities and federal wildlife agencies to explore ways to better prevent airplane strikes, safeguarding both passengers and owls, as well as assisting in the capture and relocation of snowy owls away from airport to safer, appropriate habitat.
In 2022, Dr. Rebecca McCabe completed her Ph.D. at McGill University analyzing SNOWstorm movement data, including tracking and mortality data from 42 snowy owls we have tagged and relocated from 13 airports in the U.S. and Canada. Her findings were published in the Journal of Wildlife Management to provide airport managers and others important insights into how best to move snowy owls so they stay away from airfields. Dr. McCabe's work is also pointing us in new research directions to better understand the dynamics between owls and airports.
Project SNOWstorm partners continue to work at airports in the U.S. and Canada, including Norman Smith of Massachusetts Audubon at Logan Airport in Boston, and Falcon Environment at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport in Québec. Our goal now is to test the conclusions in Dr. McCabe's research and develop proven best practices for such relocations.
Health and environmental risks
Several of the most important elements of Project SNOWstorm take place not in the field but in the lab, where we explore the largely unknown world of snowy owl health, and how the modern landscape they now inhabit places them at new and worrisome risk.
Our team of wildlife veterinarians and pathologists, based at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, have necropsied more than 350 Snowy Owls that have been accidentally killed or found dead, and we've tested hundreds of blood samples from live birds captured for banding and tagging -- by far the largest examination of the health and condition of wintering snowy owls ever undertaken.
Some of the findings have been encouraging. We've found, for example, that contrary to long-standing assumptions about snowy owls in winter, most migrant owls are generally in good physical condition, not thin and starving as was once assumed.
But there are reasons for concern. Toxicology tests have shown that most snowy owls carry at least some level of dangerous chemicals in their bodies, from lead to rodenticides (rat poison) to pesticide residues like DDE. Most troubling, many snowy owls have shown significant levels of mercury, an insidious toxin generated by coal-fired power plants and vehicle exhaust, which bioaccumulates through the food chain until it causes behavioral and reproductive problems. Because mercury contamination may be tied to diet (especially the consumption of waterbirds like ducks, gulls and loons), our tracking data is proving valuable in discerning where snowy owls may be experiencing the heaviest exposure.
In 2023 we will be partnering with Dr. Nicolas Lecomte and his students at Université de Moncton, New Brunswick, to analyze the immense veterinary data set we have established.
We are also closely tracking the impact of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which exploded across North America in wild and domestic birds in January 2022. Since the epidemic began HPAI has sickened and killed a number of snowy owls, which are most likely exposed when they prey on infected birds.
Outreach and education
Everything we do at Project SNOWstorm is shared with the public. All of our tracking maps are available and updated regularly as new transmissions come in, with email alerts and regular blog posts explaining in fascinating detail what we're doing. (The map updates are delayed 24 hours, however, to mask the owl's current position.) We happily cooperate with students and teachers who want to use our data in classroom projects and workshops.
Analysis and publications
Project SNOWstorm's tracking work represents the largest and most diverse set of winter movement data for snowy owls anywhere in the world, 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 continue to publish a stream of peer-reviewed scientific articles based on our research, so our findings inform the wider conservation of snowy owls, in such prestigious international journals as Nature, Ornithology, Oecologia and Ibis, on subjects ranging from the winter survival of immature snowy owls; factors associated with the return of translocated owls to airports; whether snowy owls migrating north in spring use stopover periods to sample potential breeding sites; and the influence of landscape cover versus social dominance on snowy owl movement patterns.
We're supporting the post-doctoral work of Dr. Rebecca McCabe as she undertakes a global status assessment of snowy owl populations worldwide -- the first time such an effort has been made, and a critical step in determining conservation action for this species.
Photos ©Jean Hall