With a gentle toss, a newly tagged snowy owl is released on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, part of Project SNOWstorm, ©Nova Mackentley

Project SNOWstorm and Snowy Owl Research

As a result of the historic irruption of snowy owls into the Northeast and Midwest in the winter of 2013-14, Scott Weidensaul and several colleagues formed Project SNOWstorm, which has grown into the largest effort to study the winter ecology of this Arctic raptor in North America, and one of the largest snowy owl research projects in the world.

 Project SNOWstorm (the name derives from the four-letter banding code for the species, SNowy OWl), now involves more than 40 researchers, banders, wildlife veterinarians and pathologists, along with dozens of organizations and agencies, across North America. The work has several major and overlapping components:

Tracking reveals that two adult female snowy owls, holding adjacent territories, almost never cross the boundary to their neighbor's range. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)The solar panel is the only part of the GPS/GSM transmitter visible on this tagged owl. (©Northside Jim) --The deployment of GPS/GSM transmitters on wintering snowy owls, which provide an unprecedented level of detail into the movements of these raptors. In just four years, SNOWstorm has tagged 70 owls in 14 states and provinces from North Dakota and Ontario to Maine, allowing us to see on an almost minute-to-minute basis -- and in three dimensions (latitude, longitude and altitude) -- where and how these birds are moving, what habitats they're using, and how they're behaving.

The telemetry data are available in interactive maps, updated regularly through the winter season, that allow anyone to experience the excitement of tracking the movements of these huge, white birds. We also regularly update our blog during the winter field season, and as new information emerges.

 --The collection of feather, blood and tissue samples, which allow a range of genetic, toxicological and isotopic analysis. Among the early findings are frighteningly high levels of methylmercury, an air pollutant generated by coal-fired power plants, and which is linked to reproductive and behavioral problems in wild animals.

 Drs. Cindy Driscoll, Sherril Davison and Erica Miller prepare to necropsy a snowy owl killed in a vehicle collision.--Necropsies of dozens of snowy owls salvaged across the irruption zone each winter -- birds that were accidentally killed by vehicles, planes, electrocution and other mishaps. While unfortunate, these birds provide the opportunity to examine the overall health of the wintering population, including parasite loads and diseases.

 Clear photos of owls with open wings and tails allow Project SNOWstorm to map age and sex distribution. (©Tom Johnson)--Photographers have uploaded thousands of geo-tagged images of snowy owls, showing open wings and tails, which allow us to age and sex most individuals and map age- and sex-class distributions.

 Funding for Project SNOWstorm has come from the general public, including very successful annual crowd-funding campaigns, as well as generous donations from a variety of ornithological, birding and natural history organizations. 

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