June 22, 2018
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Teen owl handler honored for Eagle Scout project

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Caring for injured birds became a part of Mikey’s life when he was 12 years old. As an apprentice at Birdsacre wildlife refuge in Ellsworth, he befriended one special bird and tended to many more. This spring, five years later, he celebrated the completion of a project that will improve the lives of his avian friends for years to come.

On Saturday, Michael Vittum III, who goes by “Mikey” — along with family, friends and Boy Scout Troop 86 — attended the dedication ceremony of “Project Rudder,” one of Mikey’s final steps to becoming an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouting program.

For Project Rudder, Mikey built a sturdier and larger enclosure for the duck and goose pond at Birdsacre, giving the 40-odd waterfowl a roomier, safer place to live.

“I guess sometimes nature needs a helping hand,” Mikey said. “The feeling you get after you’ve helped wildlife or just the community in general through Scouting, just the feeling of helping someone who really needs help, words can’t really describe it. It just feels amazing.”

While Mikey has yet to present Project Rudder to the Eagle Board of Review, his project has already been recognized as an outstanding wildlife contribution. This week, he is attending Hog Island Audubon Camp to study coastal Maine birds on a full scholarship, a value of $995, awarded to him by Downeast Audubon for his conservation efforts.

“It’s very prestigious. There are only 16 slots. Teens all over the country apply to go,” said Leslie Clapp, president of Downeast Audubon. “He goes for a week and has famous ornithologists, birders, scientists and biologists teaching him things about birding and ornithology.”

To win the scholarship (funded by Downeast Audubon’s annual spring Birdathon), Mikey wrote an essay about building the enclosure, Scouting and the significance of Birdsacre.

“It started a long time ago,” Mikey said. “When I was a little kid, my grandfather used to take me out to Birdsacre all the time, and I just fell in love with the place.”

“Project Rudder” was inspired by Pappy, a barred owl that came to Birdsacre after colliding with a state trooper vehicle.

“He hit the glass so hard, the state trooper thought someone shot at him,” Mikey said.

After a gaping hole in the owl’s beak healed, they tried to release the bird back into the wilderness. But when he kept flying into the side of the chain-link enclosure, they realized he had brain damage and was blind in one eye. So Pappy remained a permanent resident at Birdsacre for 19 years. Mikey was his best friend for the final four years.

“He was like a little person sort of,” he said, laughing. “If I didn’t pay attention to him, he’d hit me upside the head with his wings. It felt like a whiffle ball bat. And then he’d get in my face and just breathe. The only way I can describe it is death.”

Despite Pappy’s disabilities, he was an excellent owl for educating the public. Mikey took him to schools and sporting shows to educate people about birds of prey and Birdsacre’s mission.

“Pappy was extremely friendly. He liked to cuddle sort of,” he said. “Whenever I handled him, he nuzzled up against me, and it was really cute. He was awesome.”

After Pappy died of pneumonia during the winter of 2010-11, Mikey absorbed himself in high school courses, swim team and volunteer opportunities with Troop 86. But when it came time to tackle his Eagle project, he returned to the wildlife refuge.

“I got my inspiration for that from walking around there every day and seeing that it needed a lot of help,” he said. “Portions of the fence were either so rusted they were going to break in a couple of years or bent over so the geese could get out if they really wanted.”

Mikey, with the help of friends, family and fellow scouts, built the fence of chain link and sturdy wooden posts between November and January. Donations from local businesses and organizations, such as the Ellsworth Garden Club and EBS Building Supplies, funded the majority of the $1,500 project.

“I think he had more than 240 community service hours on that project for how many kids helped out,” said Mikey’s father, Michael Vittum II, who has acted as assistant scoutmaster for Troop 86 for the past 10 years.

Building a fence in the winter presented some challenges. The drill bit broke. And to mix cement, they had to break through the frozen pond to gather water.

“I hope the work I’ve done inspires the community to really help out Birdsacre because they really need a lot of help right now,” he said. “It’s kind of a precious gem sort of thing.”

Mikey dedicated the project to his grandmother, Julia Mawhinney Calor, who died in 2010. She was the recipient of the Girl Scout Gold Award and Boy Scout Beaver Award, the highest award a local council can present to an adult Scout volunteer.

“Around the time of her death, my parents were getting a divorce, and I thought about quitting Scouts altogether, and she kept on saying, ‘keep at it,’ the entire time,” said Mikey.

Mikey is now in the Boy Scout National Honor Society, Order of the Arrow. As senior patrol leader, Vittum is now teaching younger Scouts and enjoys watching acquire new skills and soak up knowledge about the outdoors and their community.

“I’ve watched two scouts that when they joined, they were really timid or they didn’t really talk to anyone, and I’ve watched them flourish and become developed individuals,” he said.

An estimated 1 out of 50 Scouts attain Eagle status.

Eagle requirements include 21 merit badges in areas such as first aid, environmental science, camping and citizenship in the community. Beyond merit badges, a candidate must also plan and carry out a service project to benefit the community and he must have held a troop leadership position. In uniform, he then undergoes a rigorous board of review in which his district, council and troop leaders evaluate his “attitude and practice of the ideals of Scouting.” All of this must happen before his 18th birthday.

Mikey is ready. He plans to go before the board within the next few months, before embarking on his senior year of high school.

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