“Magic of the Snowy Owl,” the title of a PBS “Nature” episode premiering Wednesday, Oct. 24 (check local listings), clearly is intended to evoke Hedwig, Harry Potter’s companion in the book and movie series.
Parents should know in advance, however, that this beautifully photographed hour is too intense for little kids, since it deals in heart-wrenching detail with the death of a tiny owlet.
Older children and adults will find the program fascinating, providing an unprecedented look at a pair of snowy owls as they try to raise their hatchlings during the short Arctic summer.
Unlike many other animals, these owls do not return annually to a predictable nesting place, so the initial challenge facing filmmaker Michael Male was simply finding a pair of the birds nesting somewhere in the vast Arctic wilderness.
After a false start in Canada, Male was tipped to two birds nesting near Barrow, Alaska, and rushed to the site.
“It was pretty nerve-racking, because we were down to this one possible nest, and there had been an enormous expedition behind us to get us to this spot,” Male tells Zap2it. “It was so late when we got to Alaska, already into the breeding season, and I really depend on having some time to film courtship and early nest activity, which I wasn’t able to do in this case. Also, it takes a while to get the birds used to having us around.”
With his access period shortened, Male filmed seven days a week in a cramped blind, often for 22 hours at a stretch, but came away with poignant footage of the mother owl trying desperately to save the life of her youngest chick as it grew weaker and weaker while its stronger nestmates hogged the food.
“I saw a couple of instances where she would manage to pull a lemming away from one of the bigger chicks and then try to feed it to that littlest one,” Male says. “It was incredible to witness how she mothered that little one, trying so hard to incubate it and getting it to respond as a chick should.”