Although he’s nocturnal, Chewy the great horned owl often cracks open his large yellow eyes to peer at Elachee Nature Science Center visitors as they pass by.
“He really likes when people are around,” said Maranda McGaha, Elachee’s programs and trails specialist. “He even loves to watch our pre-K, kindergarteners and first graders. He’s very curious. He looks at us and tries to figure out what we’re doing.”
McGaha, said Chewy moved in July into an empty enclosure, which overlooks Elache’s forested landscape. As his caretaker, she feeds him mice every morning around 8:30 a.m. and keeps him entertained with enrichment activities like hiding his food in toys and giving him ropes to shred.
Although it may seem like he lounges all day, Chewy works as the nonprofit’s animal ambassador. McGaha said the nonprofit was prompted to search for a new bird of prey after its resident red-tailed hawk was released by vandals in April. The staff and volunteers at Elachee kept an eye out for the female bird, but McGaha said they never spotted her.
Peter Gordon, Elachee’s education director, told The Times in April that the red-tailed hawk made her home at Elachee four years ago after colliding with a car on Ga. 400. He said the bird was kept in captivity because of her damaged sight.
“Seeing with one eye makes it difficult to fly and reduces depth perception,” Gordon said. “There are a lot of challenges it’s going to have if it’s going to survive.”
McGaha said Gordon reached out to raptor rehabilitators around Georgia to see if any had a bird ready for retirement and came across Chewy, who had spent the last seven years at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Jasper County.
Just like the red-tailed hawk, she said Chewy was hit by a car, which caused severe trauma to his left eye. Because his sight never healed, McGaha said the owl wasn’t released back into the wild, a place he wouldn’t survive for long.
“You can still see the iris and the pupil, it’s just turned inward,” McGaha said when referring to the owl’s left eye. “It’s mostly all black now, and he has pretty much no vision in that eye.”
Now settled into Elachee’s outdoor aviary, which is located on the right side of the nature center, Chewy serves as a bridge between visitors and the natural world.
When people meet the bird, Elachee staff and volunteers seize the moment to educate them about the great horned owl. McGaha said Chewy’s damaged eye also serves as a talking point for protecting nocturnal animals.
She regularly explains to people how nocturnal animals become active at night and are often drawn to roadways because of people’s discarded litter and food.
“Once you throw banana peel, that attracts rodents and things that Chewy would like to eat,” McGaha said. “Usually when they get hit, they’re feeding on the side of roads, and they sometimes fly in front of a car.”
McGaha said great horned owls are native to Georgia and stay in the state year-round. One of her favorite facts about the species involves how they can pivot their heads 280 degrees. She said this comes in handy because owls’ eyes are fixed in their sockets.
“He has far more sight than what we have,” McGaha said. “His purpose is to spread awareness as well as appreciation for him as a species. It’s very cool because most people don’t get to see a bird of prey that close.”
Elachee is located off Interstate 985 at 2125 Elachee Drive in Gainesville. Its facility hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.