Since 2008, Raleigh has been a star in the programs for schoolchildren at the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center on USC Aiken's campus. But soon the barred owl's audience is going to be much larger.


A recently activated webcam, which is mounted in Raleigh's cage above the door, allows Internet surfers from all over the world to check in on the big bird whenever they want to by visiting http://aviary.usca.edu/.


“Anyone can tune in and watch Raleigh live,” said Deborah McMurtrie, who is the Ruth Patrick Center's director of student programs.


The main purpose of the webcam is to expand the Ruth Patrick Center's teaching capabilities, according to McMurtrie. The piece of equipment will allow schoolchildren and their teachers to observe behaviors that Raleigh won't exhibit when a lot of people are around.


“When he doesn't know that he's being watched, he can be very entertaining,” McMurtrie said. “This camera will provide a great opportunity for people to see Raleigh do things that are natural instead of just something that has been staged in the classroom.”


When he's alone, Raleigh sometimes will take a bath in the water in his cage. Occasionally, he'll fly from one perch to another. During the day, he often perches on a branch and sleeps.


“A really neat thing to see is how Raleigh eats,” McMurtrie said.


Each day, Monday through Saturday, between 4 and 5 p.m., Raleigh dines on a dead rat.


“He is a creature of habit, and we have trained him to take food from our hands,” McMurtrie said.


“He takes the rat with his beak, and then he transfers it to his talons. He looks around to make sure that nobody is going to take it away from him, and then he swallows the whole thing.”


The Ruth Patrick Center didn't have funds in its budget for a webcam. But after the Aiken Standard published a story last year about McMurtrie's interest in acquiring one, five donors contributed money to the project.


“We are extraordinarily grateful for their kind and generous support,” McMurtrie said.


With the help of Edgefield's Dave Johnson, who knows a lot about webcams, McMurtrie and her colleagues chose an Axis Communications outdoor fixed dome model that has a night vision feature. Also contributing time and expertise to the effort were USC Aiken employees Chris Clark and Lauren Couls. Clark handled the programming, and Couls designed the website where Raleigh can be viewed live.


However, Raleigh won't always be the focus of the Ruth Patrick Center's webcam program.


“We have set up multiple jacks in our aviary so that we can put the webcam in any of our three cages,” McMurtrie said.


Screech owls Charlotte and Lina live in one of the enclosures. The cage between their enclosure and Raleigh's is empty.


But in six to eight weeks, the aviary will get a new resident, Hunter, another screech owl. Acquired from the Carolina Raptor Center in North Carolina, Hunter is undergoing training so he can participate in education programs.


After Hunter arrives, McMurtrie and her staff probably will move the webcam to his new cage so they can monitor how well he adjusts. Web users will be allowed to watch his progress.


“We'll keep an eye on Hunter with the webcam to make sure he is eating and doing OK,” McMurtrie said. “We also think that people will think it's cool to see our newest owl. Charlotte and Lina are brown, but Hunter's feathers are a bright reddish brown. He is very striking.”


Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013.