Tuesday, October 23 , 2018, 6:11 am | Fog/Mist 57º

 
 
 
 

Santa Barbara Museum’s New Aviary Almost Ready to Fly

A challenge grant has been met, but $40,000 in funding is still needed

With a little help from their friends and the community, Max, a great horned owl, and other wildlife ambassadors will find a new home at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Through a mutual goal to inspire passion for the natural world, the Santa Barbara Audubon Society and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History are working together to build a 600-square-foot birds-of-prey aviary to permanently house up to six rescued raptors that can’t survive in the wild.

The aviary will be open to the public and provide a base for the Audubon Society’s educational programs, which reach thousands of children and adults each year. It is expected to cost $150,000 to build the aviary and support the Audubon’s education outreach program.

Fundraisers announced Wednesday that they met a recent challenge grant, but that $40,000 more in donations is needed to complete the funding. Construction should start in November and last a few months.

The birds keep a busy schedule as wildlife ambassadors, attending summer camp programs and class presentations for interaction with youngsters as part of Audubon’s “Eyes in the Sky” education program, while meeting visitors at the museum on weekends. Most of the birds have sustained injuries that make them incapable of surviving on their own. With the addition of this mews, the birds will have a permanent home.

“Eyes in the Sky” relies heavily on trained volunteers to handle and care for the birds. The group has four birds that will occupy the new facility: Tecolita, a blind western screech owl; Cachina, an American kestrel with an injured wing; Ivan, a disabled red-tailed hawk; and Max, the great horned owl and most famous attraction. The aviary will make it possible to add two more birds: a peregrine falcon and a red-shouldered hawk, each housed in separate enclosures.

Max is instrumental in raising young owls by feeding them and not exposing them to human contact. He’s the stepfather of 73 owlets that were knocked out of their nests before they could fly. So, in order to have a proper pre-flight childhood, any baby great horned owl found abandoned between Ventura and Santa Maria usually ends up living for a couple of weeks, or in some cases a few months, with Max. All Max’s owlets have been released into the wild during the past 11 years.

This year, something new and unusual happened. When the youngest of three local wild great horned owlets was left behind by parents and siblings wanting to explore other areas of their territory, the young owl stayed and adopted Max as a surrogate parent. Visiting Max every evening, he even brings “prey” he has “caught,” and places it on Max’s roof to be admired. So far, the “prey” has included two stuffed toys, a small dead skunk, and wigs lifted from a neighbor’s scarecrow.

Max has been “humanized,” having been with humans nearly all his life, according to his handler, Gabrielle Drozdowski. For the past 18 years, she has cared for the birds in several aviaries in her backyard, next to a small pond with fish. Drozdowski, who has rented the property for the past 32 years, isn’t sure how much longer she’ll be able to live at her address. The museum site is a welcome upgrade.

“It’s like a dream come true,” she said of the new habitat at the museum. “The birds’ new location is secluded, peaceful, serene.”

Planning for the habitat began four years ago. Dr. Karl Hutterer, executive director of the Museum of Natural History, called the project a “win-win situation” for everyone involved. He pointed out that the land donated to build the museum was originally intended to be a bird sanctuary.

“We want to bring people back into nature,” he said. “We’re fighting what has become a nature deficit disorder.”

The aviary will bring back public live bird showings at the museum. The bird/visitor interactions feature species found in Santa Barbara County and will be conducted largely by volunteers, according to Santa Barbara Audubon Society board member Dolores Pollock. “We have a group of 15 volunteers. Twelve can work with birds, and eight can present them to the public,” she said.

The birds will be taken out from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. every day until a maximum volunteer workforce is achieved, at which time the public will have access to view the birds for several hours a day. Recruitment is under way for additional docents.

Max will be in seclusion every year for about three months while he fosters baby owls, but a webcam will be set up to stream video so visitors can still see him and the young owlets.

Contributions to the Santa Barbara Audubon Society are tax-deductible. Click here for information on how to donate or to become an “Eyes in the Sky” volunteer.

— Darlene Chirman is president of Santa Barbara Audubon Society.

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