Don’t Shoot the Charismatic Megafauna! Why Snowy Owls Get All the Love.

Slate’s animal blog.
Dec. 17 2013 10:47 AM

Don’t Shoot the Charismatic Megafauna!

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A snowy owl seen this month in Duxbury Beach, Mass.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user NancyM.

Some winters, large numbers of snowy owls appear along the East Coast like big fluffy marshmallows. The birds are normally found in Canada and the far northern reaches of the United States. Their occasional winter range expansions are called “irruptions,” and the winter of 2013 is one of the biggest on record. Snowy owls have been showing up everywhere: on beaches in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in Bermuda, and in the crosshairs of the staff at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

As we’ve covered recently, large birds and flying mechanical devices don’t mix well. Birds on runways can get sucked into airplane engines during takeoff or landing, causing potential catastrophe. The Port Authority reported that between JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports, five snowy owls had been struck by planes in two weeks. To the JFK Airport staff, a threat was still a threat, no matter how cute, and they dispatched three owls with a shotgun earlier this month.

Once the New York Post broke the news, the birding community went ballistic. Snowy owls are movie-star famous birds—you may remember a snowy owl as Harry Potter’s companion. Other airports, including Boston’s Logan, employ non-lethal catch-and-release tactics for owls on the runway, making JFK look even more barbaric. Social media exploded around the story, a Change.org petition quickly gathered more than 9,000 signatures, and JFK quickly changed its policy.

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It was certainly a win for the beautiful owls, but I couldn’t help but think of another feathered friend: Canada geese. JFK regularly culls Canada geese—sometimes thousands of them—in the name of protecting passengers. It was Canada geese that took down the US Airways plane that pilot Sully Sullenberger landed in the Hudson River in 2009, after all.

Geese culls are not exactly embraced by the environmental community, but neither have they met with the same anger that the owl news has. For example, Change.org petitions—the same kind that helped stop the snowy owl shootings—seeking to halt Canada geese culls barely reach three digits. Also, I had chicken wings for lunch.

For birder’s perspective, the explanation is rarity. I get asked all the time what my favorite bird is, and the only true answer is “whichever once I haven’t seen yet.” Canada geese are a dime a dozen on the East Coast. (Though that wasn’t always the case—hunting and habitat loss severely depleted their numbers in the late 19th century.) But a snowy owl is a rare treat. Birders on the Northeast Coast might see one snowy owl every other year, those further south could wait decades. Yet, if I had my druthers I’d ditch these owls altogether and go to California to see a little bunting being reported there—a small sparrow that represents only the fifth record of this species for the lower 48.

For non-birders, the reason for loving snowy owls over Canada geese is likely charisma. Snowy owls are downright beautiful, and people are naturally drawn to them in the same way I can’t help clicking on cute puppy videos all day long. In the world of environmental organizations, the practice of using loveable, rare animals as a hook to achieve broader goals is so commonplace that these species have their own in-joke jargon name: charismatic megafauna. Yet, for as natural as it feels to protect charismatic animals, there isn’t a basis in science for protecting elephants and tigers over other species. Species that are extremely important biologically but don’t meet our arbitrary definition of charismatic—like sharks or the entire insect world—have a much tougher time getting attention.

In the end, it might not be worth worrying too much about. People love what they love, for reasons that don’t always make sense. Environmental organizations do a lot of good with the money they raise on the backs of charismatic megafauna, and if exploiting their cute little faces is what it takes to save the planet, so be it. In fact, here’s a map of all the places snowy owls have been reported this December. Go on out and try to track one down this weekend—just give some love to a Canada goose while you’re out there.

Nicholas Lund lives and birds in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Birdist. Follow him on Twitter.