Chitters may have spent almost all of his 37 years of life in captivity, but the great-horned owl still managed to teach generations of Utahns the importance of wildlife.
Chitters, named for the sounds great-horned owls make, died last week in the arms of those who knew and loved him at the Ogden Nature Center. It is thought he passed away from natural causes linked to his age (great-horned owls typically live five to 20 years in the wild), but he may have come down with a disease at the end that hastened his death.
Chitters was pulled from a nest in the Salt Lake Valley in the early days of his life in the mid-1970s by teenagers who thought having an owl would be fun. After a month, the teens decided they weren't cut out to be parents and handed the owl to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).
"They had been feeding him for a month or two. He spent the first few years with our education coordinator in Salt Lake," said Don Paul, a DWR employee for 34 years who ended up housing Chitters for about a year before the owl was sent to the Ogden Nature Center. "I taught him a couple of tricks, like to fly over the heads of kids in the classroom so they could hear how quiet owl feathers are."
Chitters' work as an educational owl only increased when he became a resident raptor at the Ogden Nature Center. Officials there say more than 200,000 people, mostly children, saw Chitters during his 33 years at the facility.
"He was unique in that he was very gentle with people. He actually thought he was a person. He was affectionate and cuddled next to the handler holding him," said Bryce King, wildlife specialist at the Ogden Nature Center. "Children loved to see him. When they asked me questions about his eyes and if owls blinked, he would wink at the kids. He liked to hoot on cue. He was a special owl."
Because Chitters was removed from his nest at such a young age, he imprinted on humans rather than owls and never learned to hunt for his food. Returning him to the wild would have likely ended in starvation.
Chitters did escape from his handlers at least three times but always returned or was found nearby once he became hungry.
Comments on the Ogden Nature Center's Facebook page reporting the owl's demise showed a long and strong connection.
"Peace to Chitters: a great ambassador, unofficial mascot, most famous and loved owl in all of Utah and a truly beautiful creature," commented Amy Wicks.
Pamela Johnson thanked the Ogden Nature Center for taking care of and sharing Chitters.
"Aww, Chitters was the first owl I knew and loved," she wrote. "So glad he had such a long and fulfilling life with the Nature Center."
King said he more keenly realized the span of Chitters' life when some visitors asked about the owl.
"There was a woman there with her grandchild. She asked me if that was Chitters because she remembered seeing Chitters as a young girl," King said. "I thought, 'Wow, that is three generations that have been touched by Chitters.' "
Aside from all the people who will miss Chitters, it's a feathered friend who will probably miss him the most.
Cronk, a raven, was Chitters' neighbor at the Ogden Nature Center and through the years learned to imitate the hooting of the great-horned owl. King said the two feathered friends could often be heard chattering.
"Cronk is out there hooting now," King said, "and it seems like he is waiting for a response."
Memorial for Chitters the owl set for March 27
The Ogden Nature Center (966 W. 12th St.) is holding a free memorial service March 27 starting at 3:45 p.m. for Chitters to honor his 33 years of educating the public. Donations to the Chitters Memorial Fund, which will be used to enhance enclosures at the center, can be made by calling 801-621-7595 or by visiting the center's website. > ogdennaturecenter.org