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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Audubon Society’s Bird-Rescue Program Keeps ‘Eyes in the Sky’

By | Published on 12/02/2013


If you were blindfolded while listening to Gabriele Drozdowski, you might think she’s describing the antics of preschoolers: Kisa is “a joker — lots of fun,” while Ivan, she confides, is “reserved and serious.”

Kisa, Ivan and their housemates Tecolita, Cachina, Kanita, Puki, Athena and Max are raptors in the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s Eyes in the Sky program, housed at the Museum of Natural History. This successful pairing of rescued birds and a woodland setting is celebrating its third birthday this month.

Half of the birds taken to rehabilitation centers like the Wildlife Care Network are eventually released back to the wild. EITS adopts the remaining survivors, rehabilitated but with permanent disabilities. They serve as education ambassadors instead of being euthanized.

Drozdowski, the Eyes in the Sky founder and director, is the only full-time paid employee. She and her husband rehabilitated thousands of wild injured, orphaned, oiled and displaced birds beginning in 1991. A majority were seabirds; about a thousand were raptors.

Max, a great horned owl, is the most famous. His fame derives in part from his position as the First Bird. He adopted and moved in with Drozdowski as an owlet, eventually bringing dead mice and other delicacies to her bed. Even now, she communicates with him in owl-speak, delivering a convincing hoot call to which he responds with hoots that recognize her as a partner rather than a competitor.

Max’s step-family now includes 73 owls — owlets prematurely knocked out of the nest and brought to Max to be parented for a couple weeks to a couple months. All of Max’s stepchildren, hatched between Ventura and Santa Maria, have been released to the wild.

Besides being a busy parent, Max and the other raptors are the essence of more than 1,000 live bird programs since the year 2000. Drozdowski and later her covey of volunteers began partnering with schools to educate children about wildlife.

Elizabeth Brooks, a Franklin Elementary School teacher, was one of the early beneficiaries. She helped Drozdowski start the Meet Your Wild Neighbor program.

“It’s a phenomenal program for children,” she told me. Drozdowski would bring Max and tell his story. They were thrilled to see him up close and personal. “The students were mesmerized by her. She can truly relate to them. She created everything for students,” Brooks said.

Student packets contained bird cards showing the types of beaks and how they’re used, talons and even bird song. After her talk, Brooks says, students would go outside and listen to the outdoors, even identifying birds by their songs and calls.

The Eyes in the Sky program was well established with raptors and volunteers when Dr. Karl Hutterer, the previous director of the museum, offered them a permanent home. Drozdowski remembers him pointing out that the land donated to build the museum was originally intended to be a bird sanctuary.

“It’s like a dream come true,” she says of the space they’ve now inhabited for three years. “It’s peaceful, secluded and serene.”

The only downside of the EITS’ location within the museum has been the administrative hassle of working with a larger organization. Drozdowski has “twice the amount of work with half the leadership” since her husband’s death. Max can’t help with that, but Drozdowski is happy to have a part-time paid administrative assistant and 35 volunteers, three of whom help with administrative support.

The Audubon’s Adopt a Bird program makes a great Christmas gift, or you can become an Eyes in the Sky volunteer.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.


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