January 23, 2015
Pittsburgh has had some unexpected visitors this season. Endangered Short-eared Owls have been finding their way to the Pittsburgh International Airport.
When we're at the airport, most of us aren’t thinking about what’s hiding in the runway grasslands.
That’s Ben Shertzer’s job. He’s wildlife administrator for the Allegheny County Airport Authority.
“We’re out here all day long. We’ll be out here at night. We’re out here during the daylight. We’re always moving around.”
Shertzer works with Bobby Hromack, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who’s also based at the airport.
Hromack says the night before Thanksgiving, he and Shertzer were driving around the perimeter of the runway, and noticed something in the grass. So they got out to take a closer look.
“We just saw this bird sitting on the ground with its head rotating. And short eared owls actually nest on the ground. At first we weren’t sure what it was, until we picked it up. And we pulled out a bird book, just to double-check. We thought it was an endangered owl, and we were right.”
Short-eared Owls are considered endangered in Pennsylvania, although not nationwide. Hromack says at a foot to a foot and a half tall, they're smaller than most owls. They have small tufts on top of their heads, their faces are round, and beige-colored, similar to barn owls. Pennsylvania is considered the southern end of their breeding range in North America.
The open airport grass provides good hunting grounds for mice and other prey.
The day I visited, we drove around a grassy area along the side of the runway. Shertzer drove the truck slowly and pulled down the window.
“And actually, right there sits one. See it down in the ditch?”
But it was still hard to spot.
“You see the large flat rock here? That’s down in the ditch. Off to the left hand corner, there’ll be a little black ball, that looks like a rock sitting? If you look through the binoculars, you’ll actually see, that’s a Short-eared Owl sitting there.”
Shertzer is used to spotting them by now. They’ve seen eight so far this year at the airport. And have captured four of them, sometimes waiting for hours into the night for the owls to enter cages they’ve set up.
In 2009, a flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport collided with a flock of geese, damaging the plane’s engines five miles from the airport. All the people on board survived, with few injuries.
Shertzer says this is why it’s important to remove all wildlife, especially endangered owls, away from the airport.
“The more time they spend here, the more likely we are to have a wildlife strike.”
Airports around the country manage to keep wildlife away from the runways.
Shertzer says once they capture the owls, they measure them and band their legs, for research. Then they drive them 25 miles away to a site in Washington County, and let them take flight in the wild.
Photos courtesy Allegheny County Airport Authority. Bird calls in this piece courtesy of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Calls recorded by Bob McGuire.