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Thursday, December 13 , 2018, 6:30 am | Fog/Mist 43º


Eyes in the Sky Founder Heading in a New Direction

Gabriele Drozdowski uses rehabilitated birds of prey to teach children about nature

Gabriele Drozdowski with Max the Great Horned Owl.
Gabriele Drozdowski with Max the Great Horned Owl. (Courtesy photo)

The Santa Barbara Audubon Society held a farewell celebration in honor of Eyes in the Sky (EITS) founder/director Gabriele Drozdowski Aug. 26 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Because of Drozdowski’s vision to create a nature education program using rehabilitated birds of prey, thousands of schoolchildren and museum visitors have learned about the wildlife around us, and what humans can do to harm or help our winged neighbors.

Visitors to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History on a weekend afternoon may have met the feathered ambassadors of Eyes in the Sky.

Under the museum’s big oak tree, volunteers present seven rehabilitated raptors to share the birds’ stories of injury, disability and recovery, while urging visitors to take a closer look for these local species in the wild.

When visitors first see Max the Great Horned Owl, Ivan the Red-tailed Hawk, Kisa the Peregrine Falcon, Athena the Barn Owl, Puku the Western Screech Owl, and American Kestrels Kachina and Kanati with their volunteer handlers, it is common to hear, “What is that?” or “Is that real?”

Seeing these magnificent birds at an arm’s distance is memorable, and for many, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Gabriele’s vision and dedication have given us all the opportunity to appreciate these magnificent birds of prey in a very special way, and the museum is delighted to provide an ongoing home for Santa Barbara Audubon’s Eyes in the Sky program,” said Luke Swetland, museum president/CEO.

In 1998, Drozdowski and her late husband Jim Walker — both experienced bird handlers — began to care for two injured raptors: Max, a Great Horned Owl, and Ivan, a Red-tailed Hawk.

As she rehabilitated the birds, Drozdowski realized that Max, Ivan, and their stories needed to be shared and asked the Santa Barbara Audubon Society (SBAS) if it would take her idea under its wing.

SBAS agreed, and the Eyes in the Sky program was born.

Over the past two decades, Drozdowski and her corps of EITS volunteers have brought the birds to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, local libraries, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Boys & Girls Clubs, senior living communities, and elementary schools.

Drozdowski created the Meet Your Wild Neighbor program, a five-week series including live bird visits, field trips, and curriculum to teach students about local birds and environmental stewardship.

In 2004, Karl Hutterer, then SBMNH executive cirector, suggested SBAS build an aviary on the museum grounds and run the EITS program from there.

After signing a memorandum of understanding in fall 2005, SBAS began fundraising for the Museum Aviary eXhibit (MAX) Project.

In 2009, SBAS turned the MAX Project into its Birds of Prey Campaign, and raised more than $250,000. Built in the museum’s backyard, the aviary opened in December 2010.

“Offering personal encounters with raptors, Gabriele conveyed a deep understanding of nature to countless children and adults and enriched their lives in a unique way,” Hutterer said.

Drozdowski has received numerous accolades for her vision and dedication to wildlife including the Santa Barbara Independent’s Local Hero Award in 2013, and SBMNH’s Legacy Award in January 2018, on behalf of EITS.

Thanks to Drozdowski’s two decades of leadership, the EITS program is stronger than ever with a corps of volunteers who logged more than 5,600 hours last year.

“My favorite part of Eyes in the Sky is watching McKinley School elementary students' reactions to seeing a real live Great Horned Owl (Max). From there on and into the future, I hear ‘How's Max?’ Some of these students are in high school now,” Drozdowski said.

“These lasting impressions testify powerfully to EITS' impact on the community and highlight the importance of building on Gabriele's strong foundation,” Santa Barbara Audubon Society said.

“We have appointed an interim director for EITS and look forward to a promising future for our flagship educational program,” the society said.

For more information about EITS, visit www.eyesinthesky.org. For more about the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, visit www.sbnature.org.

— Briana Sapp Tivey for Santa Barbara Audubon Society.


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