Meet Sturgis, Kennesaw State’s new mascot

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013

By Doug Roberson - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

COMMERCE — Turn left onto the dirt road. At the next fork, take the next right. Then drive to the bottom of the hill, where the flood plain looks like a jungle.

Parrots, crows and pigeons live in large cages, chattering away on this brisk, gray morning. But they aren’t what Kennesaw State athletic director Vaughn Williams came to see.

Williams is here to see Sturgis, a Eurasian eagle owl.

Sturgis is the star because, with apologies to Williams, he is the face of Kennesaw State: the university’s first live mascot. He is named after the university’s first president, Horace Sturgis.

“We are trying to establish an identity,” Williams said. “Live mascots are an impactful way to engage fans.”

And what a face it is.

Sturgis’ large orange eyes are surrounded by brown and black feathers as smooth as silk and as soft as cotton. He coos and chirps – comfortable baby noises that will be replaced by hoots, owner and trainer Daniel Walthers said.

Sturgis is now perched on Walthers’ arm, which is encased in a longthick leather glove. Williams is anxious to put the glove on because he wants to hold Sturgis.

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“Every time I can have him on my arm, you just don’t get to do that,” Williams said. “That’s part of the beauty of this whole thing.”

The glove is necessary because, though Sturgis is an owlet and weighs just five pounds, he’s still a predator with surprising strength.

An adult eagle owl can weigh as much as nine pounds, at which point they are strong enough to take down a small deer. Their grip pressure can reach 500 pounds, 200 more than that of a bald eagle. When the claws sink in, they don’t let go, hence the need for the glove. The eagle owl eats rodents, ducks, pigeons and pheasant, among other things.

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Sturgis looks to the sky, where a hawk circles overhead.

Walthers pitched the idea of a live mascot to Kennesaw State a couple of years ago, but Williams said the university wasn’t ready.

After football was approved in February, Walthers was brought back down for an interview.

Williams said he was most interested in three things: the safety of the bird; Walthers’ experience handling live mascots; and Walthers’ ideas on what could be done to educate people about the owl.

Williams loved what he heard and an agreement was reached. Walthers, whose experience training and raising and taking care of birds is extensive, would keep Sturgis. Kennesaw State would pay $1,000 per appearance. Williams hopes they can arrange photo sessions so that fans can interact with Sturgis. The proceeds from the photos would go to support various conservation groups in the area.

“Thought it would be another sense of how we can brand Kennesaw State and a tremendous way to educate people about the grace and beauty of the bird,” Williams said.

Sturgis and his brother were hatched by a breeder in New York and purchased by Walthers earlier this year for $3,000.

Walthers soon began training Sturgis for his new role with a variety of tools, including airhorns, music, toys … anything that he thinks Sturgis may encounter during an athletic event or appearance.

It is a role that Walthers, likes Sturgis, seems born to.

Walthers got into birding when he was 9 years old, living in Minnesota. A shy child, he guesses he was attracted to birds because he wanted the attention. Plus, they could fly and he couldn’t, which he found interesting.

He started with parrots and pigeons. He bought a domesticated pigeon and kept it in his closet. His parents didn’t know.

He went out and caught a blackbird. A parrot perches on his shoulder in his class picture.

“He’s truly a Dr. Dolittle,” his wife Teresa said.

Walthers has tried to train everything from a tiny finch to a vulture to a large emu. The last two didn’t work out so well. The vulture would walk around their Victorian home, tapping on the windows looking for Walthers, or would peck on their roof looking for insects and other things to eat. The emu, which can grow to as tall as 6 feet and weigh as much as 120 pounds, just couldn’t be trained.

Training Sturgis is easy compared to those two.

Walthers said he trains birds through a process he explains as helping them release mental pressure. He theorizes that people and animals, when in a heightened state, remember things more clearly. He asks his guests what they remember about where they were during Sept. 11. Many people’s memories are fairly clear.

With birds, he describes the process of getting physically close to them, which increases their mental pressure. As he backs off, the pressure begins to decrease but the birds are still very alert. That’s when he works on the training. He describes it as “natural training.” It’s not operant conditioning, in which he withholds food in exchange for the desired behavior. He believes that type of reinforcement works against the trainer.

It’s a process that he taught himself through experience and visits to zoos and other animal sites.

Now, people from all over the world call him with questions about training birds.

Plus, it seems that he loves his animals too much to ever consider withholding food. He guesses he has more than 100 animals on his 20 acres. Teresa estimates that they spend at least $100 a day to feed them. All of the animals are domestic. None is imported.

Teresa used to be in the corporate world until she resigned so that she could raise their children, who help with the animals. Teresa now works in real estate.

Daniel breeds various species of birds. There are more than 60 parrots at their home and dozens of pigeons. He also trains African Pied Crows, which are passed off as ravens, for TV shows such as “The Walking Dead” or commercials. He trained the first live raven used by Baltimore’s NFL team in 2008-09.

He used to train birds for shows like those at Busch Gardens. He also used to run a larger breeding operation but got out of it because of the expense.

Maintaining their farm is a full-time job. Walthers said he works from morning until night, and every day feels like there is still so much to do. He rarely takes vacations because he doesn’t want to leave the animals in someone else’s care. He is certified by the Department of Natural Resources.

Sturgis seems bored by the attention, but perks up when Walthers brings out some food. Sturgis can eat three times a day. Walthers said Eurasian eagle owls can live up to 60 years in captivity, twice as long as in the wild, because they receive a steady supply of food.

Williams has been holding Sturgis for the past 15 minutes and doesn’t want to let him go, even during feeding time. Sturgis eats and then begins to coo again.

Williams will see Sturgis again in February, possibly at the university’s first signing day for football on Feb. 5. Sturgis will definitely make an appearance at the men’s basketball game against Mercer on Feb. 7.

Williams can hardly wait.

“A great horned owl is powerful,” he said. “That’s how I see our student-athletes and Kennesaw State.”


TIMELINE

A look at Kennesaw State’s decision to have a live mascot:

February: The Board of Regents approves Kennesaw State’s financing plan for football.

February: Kennesaw State athletic director Vaughn Williams meets with noted bird trainer Daniel Walthers about the possibility of the school having a “live” mascot. They reach an agreement.

April 8: Sturgis is hatched in New York.

April 29: Sturgis is shipped to Walthers.

October: Sturgis’ name is revealed and he makes his first appearance at Kennesaw State’s “Flight Night.”