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Environment & Energy

Pittsburgh Airport Transfers Endangered Owls to Natural Habitat

Pittsburgh International Airport has booked three short-eared owls a one-way ticket to their natural habitat.

The medium-sized owls, which measure 13 to 17 inches tall, were spotted on the edges of the airport’s property at the beginning of this month, and the airport’s wildlife management team, along with environmental regulatory agencies, have relocated them to a safer habitat — safer for them and potentially safer for the aircrafts.

While the short-eared owl is not considered endangered or threatened at the federal level, it is in Pennsylvania. 

Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary, said short-eared owls are different from most other owls because they prefer open, treeless habitats instead of forests.

“Airports, actually, if you look at them from a bird’s eye view, they really fill the bill quite nicely because although they have the runways, in between all the runways and taxiways are very wide, grassy strips that are maintained that way for practical purposes for the airport,” Mulvihill said.

But JoAnn Jenny, director of communications, said the airport is not a safe environment for the birds, which also pose a danger to the airplanes.

“It just makes a challenge for aviation operations, and it could result in mechanical problems or an aircraft incident,” Jenny said.

So the airport worked together with the USDA and the National Aviary to transport the owls to a safer place.

“The three of us all put together a program where we would capture the owl, we banded it and we relocated it away from the airport area about 25 miles,” Jenny said.

Mulvihill, who tagged the owls, said the small, aluminum bands mark the birds as individuals so the agencies can follow their “fates.”

“One short-eared owl looks pretty much like the next short-eared owl,” he said. “And only by attaching a band with a unique number do we have a hope of knowing if that specific owl goes somewhere else, survives another year and so forth.”