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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Lessons in Character from the Snowy Owl

   On a bit of a whim, I picked up a PBS documentary from my local library last weekend entitled Magic of the Snowy Owl (2012).  The film crew captured footage of one pair of snowy owls during the 82 day period from nesting/hatching to the time the owlets could take flight.  These impressive birds demonstrated a few striking qualities that we humans could learn from.  To avoid being preachy, I'll let my readers make the personal connections for themselves.

Loyalty & Teamwork

   Amid a hostile environment, the snowy owls recognize that they need each other to survive.  The mother and father are equally involved in the nurture of their young.  A total of five owlets hatched from eggs, about one every couple of days.  However, the youngest owlet, being weakest, did not get its fair share of the food in those early days when lemmings and small songbirds were not plentiful.  Eventually this owlet grew weaker and weaker, but its mother seemed to recognize its struggle and tenderly placed it under her wing. Abandoning the weak may fit Darwin's "survival of the fittest" model, but the film crew observed something quite different.  


   Two significant examples of persistence among the snowy owl clan stood out to me.  One was the father, whose instinctive task is to provide food for his mate and the owlets.  At first, he had difficulty finding enough prey to feed the brood.  However, the film crew observed that he continued his search, even though it took him an extra mile away from the nest.  His perseverance ended up paying off with many lemmings occupying the new hunting ground; later on the male is pictured holding a dead lemming in its beak with no takers.
   For some reason the mother owl begins leading the owls on a trek towards to the coast.  This is the direction where the male has found good hunting.  The naturalists also speculate that the coastal breezes are also favoured because they ward off the plague of mosquitoes.  As the awkward and flightless owlets trudge through the flat and grassy landscape, they come upon a river that blocks their path.  They cannot fly over it or wade through it.  But they do not give up.  These young owls flap their wings in the water and maneuver themselves to the other side.  This had never been documented or filmed before!

Acceptance of Life Stage

   The young owls learn to fly at the end of the Arctic summer.  They will not winter in the Arctic even though their parents will.  There is no shame for these novices to fly further south, where conditions are more favourable to their survival.  Whenever a snowy owl is spotted during a Southern Canada or the Northern U.S. winter, in all likelihood it is a juvenile owl beginning to master hunting and other skills that will enable it to eventually winter in the tundra.

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