Athena, like her namesake, is noble and tough. She grips her perch with needle-tipped talons and peers straight into my eyes through what feels like the back of my head. After a motionless minute, the white-feathered barn owl blinks and swivels her head to study the other person standing in the backyard of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
“Kids like to get in staring contests with her,” chuckled John O’Brien, one of Athena’s caretakers and a volunteer with the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s Eyes in the Sky (EITS) education program. “Their eyes get as big as saucers.”
Then we stepped into Ivan’s habitat. The red-tailed hawk craned his head and flared his wings as he gave us a more forceful look. He seemed to know O’Brien. “Every bird has a distinct personality,” O’Brien explained. “And after a while, they learn to recognize us.”
Along with the program’s five other rescued birds of prey — a great horned owl, screech owl, peregrine falcon, and two American kestrels — Athena and Ivan will be on-hand for an EITS fundraiser this weekend to connect people with winged wonders they may have seen from afar but never up close. There will also be aviary tours, kids’ activities, Chumash storytelling, and a silent auction for prizes like Bacara spa packages, wine tours, and birding trips.
While the day will generate attention and money for the beloved 15-year-old program, it will also be a chance for those interested in joining its 42-member volunteer team to hear what it’s like to care for the feathered ambassadors. The group often visits public schools and Boys & Girls clubs, focusing on lower-income areas where kids may not ever run through the woods or rummage in the mud.
“We want to get them excited about interacting with nature,” O’Brien explained of the Meet Your Wild Neighbor science program that includes field trips to different habitats. O’Brien also expects return visitors who head to the museum every week to see their favorite birds. “They’re just mesmerizing,” he said.
The Eyes in the Sky Open House/Fundraiser is Sunday, October 18, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (2559 Puesta del Sol). See eyesinthesky.org.