The Eden Prairie Outdoor Center community is mourning the loss of Whisper, a barred owl who had served as an educational ambassador there for seven years.
Whisper died of natural causes on Oct. 23.
“We’re all obviously saddened by this because he played a huge role in the day-to-day operations of the center,” said Stan Tekiela, the longtime director/supervisor of the outdoor center. “So many people would show up just to see him because he was on display.”
During his time at the outdoor center, Whisper interacted with countless children, making appearances at local elementary schools and introducing students to the wonders of wildlife.
Tekiela said Whisper’s role was especially prominent in educational programs at Prairie View and Oak Point elementary schools, where third graders had the opportunity to dissect owl pellets, shedding light on the dietary habits of these birds of prey.
“The kids would get to dissect one of his pellets because owls can’t digest all the bones and the fur when they eat,” Tekiela explained. “They regurgitate these pellets, which we then collect, sterilize, and make available for students to dissect. Inside, students can find all the bones. It’s quite a cool program for third graders to learn about.”
He said the owl’s captivating nature wasn’t just a product of his species’ unique attributes, but also the dedication of the two raptor handlers at the center who have been specially trained to care for such birds.
“They’ve been the primary caregivers all this time,” he said. “And, they’ve devoted a lot of time and a lot of effort to that bird.”
Whisper’s origin story
Whisper, injured in an accident likely involving a car on the west side of Chicago, came to the outdoor center in 2016.
“He was probably hit by a car,” Tekiela said. “We don’t know exactly, but he was injured, and came into the rehab center down there in Chicago.”
After rehabilitation, Whisper couldn’t return to the wild due to his injuries, but he could work as an educational bird.
“I called down there and talked to the doctor who worked with him, and he said the bird was fabulous,” Tekiela said. “He’s really calm. He’s really good. I drove down, picked him up, and brought him back.”
Once in Eden Prairie, Whisper got his name from a Facebook contest.
“The name Whisper comes from the fact that owls fly with silent flight,” explained Tekiela. “They don’t make any noise when they’re flying.”
Tekiela said the barred owl is native to Minnesota. “And they are our only dark-eyed owl,” Tekiela said. “All of our other owls have yellow eyes. These guys have dark brown eyes. And they don’t have any ear tufts on their head like a great horned owl.”
Tekiela explained that the center’s staff would open a window, allowing Whisper the option to enter the sunroom where visitors could view him.
“There were plenty of days when he didn’t want to come out, but our training approach now emphasizes giving the animal a choice rather than forcing actions upon them,” he explained.
He pointed out that the approach to animal care and training has evolved significantly over the last 10 years. “Now, we always offer the bird a choice in their actions, guiding them with visual and auditory commands,” he said. “It’s similar to dog training. It’s truly remarkable to observe the birds’ responsiveness and performance.”
Discovering Whisper’s true age
When the outdoor center first acquired Whisper, Tekiela said determining his age was difficult.
“We had to take him into a dark room, stretch out his wings and then shine a UV light into the lining of the underside of his wing,” Tekiela said. “Based on how much pink color we see, you kind of estimate the age of the bird, and we estimated the age of the bird at that time to about 5 to 7 years old or somewhere in there. Turns out we were probably really wrong.”
A doctor’s checkup last April revealed that Whisper might have been significantly older than initially thought. Given his arthritis, the owl was estimated to be 20 to 25.
Tekiela said Whisper remained active and lively until his decline two weeks ago.
“He went from doing absolutely amazing to absolutely terrible,” he said. “Just that quickly. And he was gone a week ago Monday.”
While Whisper’s absence is greatly missed, there are discussions about welcoming a new bird in the future.
“We have the facility for it,” he said. “We have the staff trained for it. So it only makes sense that we would move forward with another bird.”
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