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White Out: Going North with the Snowy Owls
October 24, 2012  | By Eric Gould

Here we are, in the middle of an election season, and families are hearing that things have never been worse, (or never been worse, but improving). So maybe it's time to tune in and see what the Snowy Owl has to deal with.

The grass, as it is in the summer Arctic tundra, is always browner. There's a tough real estate market which is frozen over nine months of the year. There's a scurrying food supply: plentiful one day, gone the next. Add the howling brood needs to be fed round the clock. And those same kids, while not squawking about the latest iPad, need to be ready to fly in 90 days.

The wondrous Snowy Owl, with a wing span of five feet, is the model of hard work, cunning and success. Birding and other nature enthusiasts can get the full story on this majestic bird of prey on the next edition of the PBS series, Nature: Magic of the Snowy Owl, premiering Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)

Perhaps the ones who have it worse than parents and owlets are the documentary filmmakers, who travel into the Alaska's arctic tundra region and fail to find owls to film in the spot where they usually nest in summer. They travel hundreds of miles before finding a pair, then huddle in a cramped camouflaged blind over 90 days — almost a mile away from the birds — to get footage. By the end of July they are swarmed by the blood-sucking mosquitoes that invade the territory at the end of summer.

That's harsh, but they get results, with stunning photography that puts viewers right into the nest with the mother and hatchlings.

But comparatively, the crew's endurance has nothing on the Snowy Owls. Adult owls can survive in the arctic twilight, when the sun lurks around the horizon, for up to half the year, hunting in the gloom with hawk-eye vision. They withstand the harshest conditions while swooping down to capture the smallest of quick-footed critters.

And to be sure, it's all about the hunting. And the eating, which goes on around the clock for the parents and the ravenous young. The main subjects of Magic of the Snowy Owl, a newly-hatched clutch of five chicks, have to bulk up quickly on the four to five small lemmings that the male brings to the nest each day. During the hour-long documentary they seem to swell as large as the momma and poppa, but still unable to fly or hunt for themselves.

And since their hunting skills won't be developed enough in their first year to survive in the harsh Arctic landscape, they will need to make their way south quickly for their first winter where the living, and hunting, is easier.

But talk about trips to the grocery store. Mom and Dad Snowy Owl are bringing in around 20 to 25 catches a day, all while protecting the young from outside predators. It's arduous, courageous work, and one gets the feeling that if it were necessary, they'd also be knocking off trips to Disney World and cutting out of work to make dance recitals.

Yes, Mom and Dad, times are tough. Why not gain some inspiration from the Snowy Owls, who just may be the hardest working parents north of the Arctic Circle.

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