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Wharton: Babysitting Chitters the owl

Published April 11, 2013 12:16 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The death of the beloved great-horned owl Chitters a few weeks ago touched many of us who had contact with this wonderful bird.

In my case, our family got up close and personal with Chitters in the early 1980s, when then Division of Wildlife Resources education specialist Susan McLane needed someone to "owlsit" while she took a trip to Alaska where she now lives. My family volunteered.

We put the beautiful owl and his perch in an empty room in our then-unfinished basement. If memory serves, Chitters could turn his head almost 360 degrees and study us from any angle. My kids and their friends were fascinated.

Our old cat, on the other hand, nearly had a heart attack. She went to see this big feathered thing in the basement and Chitters spread his wings and made a menacing sound. The kitty went into hiding for a couple of weeks.

Susan, who used the last name Aune in those days, gave us baggies filled with frozen mice that needed to be thawed. I can't remember if we used a microwave to accomplish that task but she remembers using one at the old DWR building and "cooking" a mouse a little long, creating a rather interesting aroma.

"He was imprinted [he thought he was human] and couldn't hunt on his own," said McLane in a phone interview after Chitters died. "We had to kill the mice."

She instructed us not to feed Chitters by hand but to toss the dead mouse near the bottom of his perch to give him the feeling of pouncing on it.

We were particularly fascinated by the pellets or casts that the bird regurgitated every few days. These would be filled with tiny mouse bones and bits of mouse hair that couldn't be digested.

McLane said Al Hagen, who was then the head of the DWR's nongame wildlife section, named the bird.

"Owls have so many sounds," she said. "One of them was a little chittering sound. He made that sound, and it stuck."

She said that no one at the DWR was sure whether Chitters was a male or female, but because male great horned owls tend to be smaller, the bird's handlers at the Ogden Nature Center decided it was a "he."

McLane was one of the first education specialists hired by the DWR in the early 1980s using funds from a nongame wildlife tax checkoff box. Chitters lived with her and she took him to school classes and service clubs to give education programs on birds of prey.

"I would take him around to schools in a Fish and Game car," she recalled. "He would sit in a big perch on the front seat, turn his head and look at someone at the stop light."

Chitters could be challenging though. McLane said the bird escaped from his perch twice when she was its caretaker.

"We lived in Sugar House close to the Graystone condos," she recalled. "He flew to the Graystone, either two or three floors high, and perched . They called the Fish and Game … He was gone one time for three days … He had to be hungry enough to get back on my arm."

One of the charming things about Chitters was that if you were gentle, he would allow himself to be petted. And even if someone came too fast at him, McLane can never remember him ever drawing blood with his beak or talons.

When she became busy with a new program called Project WILD, McLane gave Chitters to Don Paul, a long-time DWR biologist and education specialist. Paul eventually turned the bird over to the Ogden Nature Center. An estimated 200,000 people saw Chitters over the years.

"I went to visit him a few years ago," said McLane. "He let me hold him. He didn't try to fly away or anything. It made me cry."

There were no doubt many tears shed when disease and old age finally caught up to Chitters, a bird who spent a valuable lifetime teaching thousands about his species.

Wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton