One of the most beloved animals at the Ogden Nature Center has died. Chitters, the great horned owl, passed away on Thursday.
It is believed that Chitters, who was 37, died of old age.
"Great horned owls generally pass away at 38 years of age in captivity," said Bryce King, a wildlife specialist at the Ogden Nature Center. In the wild, he said, they have shorter life spans.
Chitters was the official mascot of the nature center; his portrait was used to promote the center online and in print, and even on temporary tattoos.
A memorial service will be at 3:45 p.m.
Wednesday, March 27, at the nature center, in place of the originally scheduled Wild Wednesday program. Friends and fans are invited to bring pictures, stories and letters about Chitters, and leave them at the mew, or enclosure, he called home.
Chitters was taken from the wild when he was a baby, by young boys who thought he would make a nice pet.
"Because he was taken at such a young age, he never learned to hunt, to take care of himself, or to watch for predators," said Brandi Bosworth, public relations and special projects coordinator for the Ogden Nature Center.
When the situation was discovered, Chitters was confiscated and cared for by the Division of Wildlife Resources. He was given a home at the nature center 33 years ago, where he helped educate more than 200,000 children and adults during special programs.
"I think having Chitters ignited curiosity and questions," said Bosworth. "It created a great flow of information about wildlife, about habitat protection, and what lives in Utah."
As he grew older, Chitter's handlers decided to give him a break from public performances. He didn't like it.
"He kind of got depressed," said King. "He wasn't hooting. ... He was rubbing his feathers against his pen and became a mess, not looking as handsome as he was."
When they put him back in the programs, he was happy again.
Chitters enjoyed being around people, because he grew up around them.
"He was very affectionate to the handlers," said King, noting that the owl used to nuzzle up to handler Heidi Christensen during programs. "He felt secure being held close."
During the spring, he would feel the urge to meet female owls, and he once escaped for several days.
Most years, he would just enjoy the company of his handlers. "Because he would imprint on people, he would act like he was courting some people," said King. "He would carry a mouse and try to hand it to you as a food transfer. ... He was a little mixed up because he thought he was almost human."
Chitters was named for the chittering sound he made. His mews neighbor, a raven named Cronk, learned to mimic the famous owl.
"Even today, he's out there hooting," said King. "I think he misses Chitters, and he's hooting when people walk by. I think he's hoping Chitters will reply."
Members of the community are also missing Chitters.
Amy Wicks, of the Ogden City Council, posted online "Peace to Chitters: a great ambassador, unofficial mascot, most famous and loved owl in all of Utah and a truly beautiful creature. May your legacy continue with all of those you have touched with hope for protection, safe habitat, and appreciation for native wildlife."
"It's so neat to see so many people he touched remember him," King said.
Chitters will be buried on the Ogden Nature Center grounds, with a stone to mark the site.
At the request of community members, the nature center is establishing a Chitters Memorial Fund, to be used to enhance the mews. Donations can be made online at www.ogdennaturecenter.org, with the note "In Memory of Chitters." Donations will also be accepted by phone at 801-621-7595 or via mail at Ogden Nature Center, c/o Chitters Memorial Fund, 966 W. 12th Street, Ogden, UT 84404.
The nature center was already in the process of trying to adopt a barn owl, but now staff members plan to fill out extra paperwork.
"We will be looking for a great horned owl to follow, not replace, but follow Chitters," said King.