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Maryland Zoo Lend a Wing to Snowy Owl Research

Posted By : The Animal Facts Editorial Team

Date: March 2, 2021 4:50 pm

snowy owl research Maryland Zoo

A snowy owl at the Maryland Zoo is fitted with a GPS tracker

Photo Credit: Maryland Zoo

The Maryland Zoo in the US are lending a helping wing to research on the snowy owl by trying out a new GPS transmitter on one of their residents.

Co-founder of Project SNOWstorm, Dave Brinker asked the Maryland Zoo to test the new model of GPS transmitter. Project SNOWstorm was launched seven years ago during a major irruption of snowy owls when these birds migrated south in unusually large numbers. This allowed scientists a rare chance to learn more about the species.

snowy owl research Maryland Zoo

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake hatchlings at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Photo Credit: Maryland Zoo

GPS transmitters were rarely fitted to snowy owls prior to this and due to the opportunity presented the team worked to quickly adapt existing technology. They used GPS/GSM unites that New Jersey-based Cellular Tracking Technologies (CTT) manufactured.

These units were the size of a small matchbox with a solar panel on top. They record the location, altitude and flight speed of the owls as often as every six seconds. Three times a week these will be delivered to project SNOWstorm through a cell phone tower. These help researchers to track where the owls are moving, hunting, resting or migrating.

“That first winter, we based our choices on size, shape and fit using the only proxy we had at hand — a young male snowy owl that had died after being brought to a Pennsylvania rehabilitation facility, and which was sent to us,” said Brinker. “The transmitter is attached with a harness of quarter-inch-wide woven tubular ribbon, which fits around the wings and body like a backpack, with the transmitter sitting high in the middle of the back, at the owl’s center of gravity. Altogether, everything — transmitter, harness, leg band — weighs no more than 3% of the bird’s body weight, a threshold which, based on decades of raptor telemetry, is widely accepted as safe.”

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With over 90 transmitters deployed in the past seven years researchers have learnt about the pros and cons of the initial design. The main issue is keeping the solar panel clear of feathers. As the owls preen themselves they may push the transmitter deep in to their feathers covering the solar panel. This can prevent the proper charging of the battery.

This year the team at CCT brought a range of proposed changes to the team which would help to make the transmitter more stable on the bird's back and prevent the feathers covering the solar panel.

Through changing how the 3D printing process works they have also made the already small transmitters much lighter.

snowy owl research Maryland Zoo

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake hatchlings at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Photo Credit: Maryland Zoo

To test how successful the transmitter is the co-founder of project SNOWstorm requested that the Maryland Zoo try it on one of their captive owls. Dr. Ellen Bronson, sr. director of animal health, conservation, and research and Jennifer Kottyan, avian collection and conservation manager at the Zoo, welcomed the chance to help by fitting the test unit on the Zoo’s male snowy owl. Dr Bronson also serves as part of the veterinary team for project SNOWstorm.

Over the past two months staff at the zoo have monitored the owl to see if any signs of discomfort develop. Ever since being fitted he seems to have ignored it. "There are no problems at all to report,” continued Kottyan. “He is seemingly oblivious to the piece of equipment on his back.”

"He will continue to wear the transmitter through the summer at least, while the veterinary staff and his animal care team will continue to observe him to ensure his well-being."

“We were really pleased with how the test unit rides on the owl, and how it remains well above his feathers. Regular check-ups by the Zoo’s animal care staff have shown no unexpected problems with fit or wear,” stated Brinker. “We’re grateful to Dr. Bronson and the staff at the zoo for welcoming the opportunity for their male to contribute to our understanding of his species.”

snowy owl research Maryland Zoo

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake hatchlings at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Photo Credit: Maryland Zoo

“We are the only Zoo participating in Project SNOWstorm,” noted Dr. Bronson, “We were happy to offer the snowy owl as a way for him to help contribute to ongoing scientific research for his species.”


The Maryland Zoo maintains the Project SNOWstorm BioBank, and the Zoo’s licensed veterinary technicians process and analyze all samples collected from the snowy owls banded and tagged by the group.

Learn more about Snowy Owls here – Snowy Owl Fact File | The Animal Facts

Learn more about the Maryland Zoo on their website – Maryland Zoo

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