Posted by: James Wapotich | May 17, 2016

Trail Quest: Meet Your Wild Neighbor

After the kids in Ms. Heather Young’s second grade class had finished learning to recognize the nine most common raptors in our area, Gabriele Drozdowski reminded the children to be very quiet and to not create a lot of commotion so that she could bring out their guest for the day.

She went over to Max’s wooden carrying box, and brought him out onto her leather glove. From there Max flew to the perch on top of his carrier and calmly took in the scene around him as Ms. Drozdowski shared his story. Max is a great horned owl and during her presentation, Ms. Drozdowski, would call to him, making a very convincing owl call, and Max, who has decided that Ms. Drozdowski is his mate, would call back.

Max was found along a trail in the Ojai backcountry in 1998, when he was little and was brought to the Ojai Raptor Center. Because of his early introduction to people, he unfortunately imprinted on humans, and according to Ms. Drozdowski, either decided that he was a person, or that we were what owls are; and either way if returned to the wild wouldn’t be able to get along with other owls. And so Max began a new life as an educational ambassador and became the first bird in Santa Barbara Audubon’s Eyes In The Sky educational program. Over the years Max has participated in over 1,000 programs, and also foster-parented 76 orphaned owlets that were returned to the wild.

Eyes in the Sky Gabriele Drozdowski Meet Your Wild Neighbor

Gabriele Drozdowski points out birds around Stow House as part of the field trip at Lake Los Carneros

Max’s visit to McKinley School was part of Santa Barbara Audubon’s Meet Your Wild Neighbor program. The educational program is grant-based and offered free to low-income area schools, and is also available to other organizations. The program has been taught at McKinley School now for 15 years. 

The first grade program is five weeks, and consists of three classroom visits and two field trips. The first grade program covers the 12 most common local birds. During those five weeks students learn about the birds, how to recognize them by sight and sound, and how to help protect them. The first field trip is around the schoolyard where they often see scrub jays, acorn woodpeckers, Anna’s hummingbirds, house sparrows, mockingbirds, and even a red-tailed hawk, which lives near the school. The second field trip is to Lake Los Carneros, which has an even richer variety of birds.

The second grade program teaches students about the nine most common raptors in our area and includes an owl pellet dissection lesson, as well as a walk around Lake Los Carneros. During each of the Meet Your Wild Neighbor sessions one of the seven different bird ambassadors from Eyes In The Sky comes to the class. The third grade program focuses on local sea birds and includes a visit to Goleta Beach. The fields trips are open to the students’ families and often some of their parents will come along.

The program consistently gets high marks and praise from the teachers, and the kids even years later when they see the birds on campus or at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History recognize them and remember many of the details that they‘ve learned about the birds.

Ms. Drozdowski’s own introduction to our local birds started in 1991. That year saw a major El Niño event which warmed the waters offshore such that many of the fish that sea birds depend on either went further north or out into deeper waters. As a result many sea birds were dying off from starvation, and those that could be saved were being rehabilitated by Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. A couple years earlier, a friend, having sold her house, gave Ms. Drozdowski a good size aviary.

Max great horned owl Eyes in the sky meet your wild neighbor Santa Barbara audubon

Max, the great horned owl, visiting Ms. Heather Young’s second grade at McKinley School

At that time, Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network didn’t have a facility and volunteers took in animals at their homes. When they learned of Ms. Drozdowski’s aviary they asked if she would be willing to help out. She said yes, and about an hour later the first bird arrived, a brown pelican. Over the course of the next seven years she and her husband helped rehabilitate more than 2,000 sea birds.

Ready to move on from the demands of working with sea birds, they shifted their focus in 1998, to rehabilitating raptors. A common cause of injury to raptors is being hit by a car or truck while trying to capture prey. That is, the raptor becomes so intently focused on tracking its prey through the brush or grass, catching only intermittent glimpses of it, that when their prey breaks out into the open, crossing a road, the raptor will strike, unaware of the oncoming traffic. Raptors are also opportunists and will go after roadkill that they find, and often can get caught up in the wind turbulence caused by passing semis or tractor-trailers.

In all, Ms. Drozdowski has helped rehabilitate over 1,000 raptors, many of whom have been returned to the wild. Birds that aren’t able to be returned, e.g. because of the nature of their injuries, often become educational ambassadors like Max.

In 2000, she started Meet Your Wild Neighbor and Eyes In The Sky. ”I realized that rehabilitating birds wasn’t enough, because it didn’t change the landscape in terms of what happens to birds.” Ms. Drozdowski, Eyes In The Sky Executive Director, told the News-Press. “I wanted to turn it into an educational resource that educated kids about the dos and dont’s of how to interact with wildlife and how they can help protect birds.”

Through Eyes In The Sky, raptors like Max became regular visitors at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, serving as educational ambassadors. Similar to classroom visits, the program lets people see the raptors up close and learn more about them.

Kisa peregrine falcon lake los carneros eyes in the sky meet your wild neighbor santa barbara audubon

Eyes In The Sky volunteer Coni Edick with Kisa, the peregrine falcon at Lake Los Carneros

In 2004, Dr. Karl Hutterer, who was then Executive Director of the Museum, asked Santa Barbara Audubon and Eyes In The Sky if they would like to build an aviary at the Museum to permanently house the birds. This was a welcome opportunity, given that the growing aviary at Ms. Drozdowski’s home was largely able to exist thanks to the open mindedness of her landlord. With the offer, Santa Barbara Audubon Society began fundraising and going through the permitting process, and in 2011, the birds moved into their new home at the Museum.

The raptors can be seen daily in the aviary, and are brought out in the afternoon between 2-4 p.m. The aviary is located next to the Museum Backyard, which is the museum’s outdoor exploration and play-in-nature area. On Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, between 2-4 p.m. the birds are brought to the museum’s main campus for viewing.

The seven educational ambassadors in the program, including Max, are Ivan, a red-tailed hawk; Kisa, a peregrine falcon; Puku, a western screech owl; Athena, a barn owl; and Kachina and Kanati, a pair of American kestrels.

Ms. Drozdowski’s own connection to nature started in Germany where she grew up, before moving to the United States when she was 17. Her mother had lived through the Bombing of Berlin during the Second World War; and Ms. Drozdowski shared, that as result her own childhood was challenging, but that she was fortunate enough to grow up in a rural area and had easy access to the woods.

“From early childhood on, I would walk around in the open forests; it was so amazing, it felt like a cathedral. Whenever I needed to feel good about anything I would go into nature and feel better.” Ms. Drozdowski reflected. “That’s a big part of why I want kids to be exposed to nature, to become aware that there’s always a place where you can go and just feel better, whether it’s in a park, sitting by a creek, the beach, or on a trail.” 

For more information about Meet Your Wild Neighbor and Eyes In The Sky go to,

This is article originally appeared in section A of the May 16th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Red-tailed hawk lake los carneros santa barbara goleta

A red-tailed hawk watches the class at Lake Los Careneros

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