Let me begin by saying I wanted this volunteer job ever since seeing the program that HawkQuest, a raptor education program from Colorado, presented at the Center in summer 2010. I went right home and told my husband I wanted to work with HawkQuest—I wasn’t really serious, I wasn’t planning on uprooting us, but I really was blown away by the enthusiasm of the volunteers, the goals of the program, and the birds themselves. If only we could have something like that here in Cody.
I was already a volunteer for the Draper Natural History Museum at the Center, and when I saw the Draper Curator, Dr. Charles Preston, I told him I wished we had a program like HawkQuest here. He responded, “I’m working on it.” My response was, “Sign me up!” I did not allow myself to get excited at that point, but I didn’t shove the idea completely out of my mind either. When Dr. Preston began advertising for an assistant curator to establish, launch, train volunteers, and manage the program, I realized that my dream was going to come true.
I was pleased when I heard that he had hired Melissa Hill, whom I had met when she came to Cody as part of the HawkQuest program. Melissa came to the Center with a lot of experience both in handling birds, and lecturing about them. She also has a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and Management, and had worked with birds at Reptile Gardens in South Dakota. Melissa is so well qualified for the position, that Dr. Preston couldn’t have found anyone better.
Then the waiting began, and I of course, was bugging Melissa throughout the entire process, “Can I help you with anything?” “No,” she would say, “We don’t have any birds yet.” Of course I kept asking, just in case. Melissa had a huge job ahead of her, and I had a lot of waiting to do. Waiting for the mews (where the birds would live) to be designed, waiting for the plans to be approved by both the Wyoming Game & Fish and the Planning & Zoning Board, waiting for the mews to be built, waiting for the mews to be approved by the Game Warden, waiting for the permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Wyoming Game and Fish to come through, and waiting for the birds to be found, and brought to the Center. That was a lot of waiting!
Finally in August 2011 everything came together, and Melissa could drive away, returning with birds on each trip. So after all that impatient waiting, and all that time bugging Melissa, when the birds actually began to arrive I was very ecstatic. Melissa, of course, had to spend time working with the birds to get them ready to stand on our gloves. Then she had the task of training all of her eager volunteers, who had no knowledge of what it was really like to be a bird handler.
In September of 2011, my training began with Isham, our red-tailed hawk, and to my amazement and delight, Melissa handed me this marvelous raptor toward the end of my very first lesson. I was just blown away by the feeling, and from that day on, I had the joy of learning to work with each bird. And WOW, there was so much to learn! We had to know how to pass a bird from one person to another, how to tie knots, what to do if the bird launched itself off our glove (bated), how to pick them up from their mews, how to put them back, how to put them into travel boxes, how to take them out, and lots of other skills. Plus we had to become knowledgeable about each bird type so that we could talk about the birds as well as answer questions when we were out in public.
I have now been working with the program for almost a year, and I am still finding the same joy and awe at being able to spend time with each of our wonderful birds, as well as sharing my enthusiasm and knowledge with visitors. I have been asked by friends if I have a favorite bird. I know that we should not have favorites, but when I am getting ready in the morning, and I am wondering what bird I will present that day, there is always two that I wish for, but then there are also two that I am not disappointed to get, so I am good to go no matter who will be standing on my glove. Even though there is a young bird in an old man’s body, with big eyes, who would just as soon not see me. Just having any of the birds on my glove makes my day. In fact, if I get up grumpy in the morning, as we all do sometimes, having a bird on my glove is a big attitude adjuster. I can’t possibly be grumpy when I am around the birds.
But my volunteer job isn’t just standing around with a bird on my glove talking to visitors. There are also other duties, including cleaning the mews, cutting up quail, rats, and rabbits to feed the birds (Yes, they are already dead, in fact they come to us frozen.) Do I enjoy them all? Well of course cleaning the mews isn’t as fun as spending time with the birds on my glove, but I don’t mind the activity at all, and it is nice to give them clean quarters to live in. Cutting up the larger critters that they eat (we also have chicks and mice) isn’t the greatest job in the world, but isn’t like eeeeewwwwww how disgusting, and after all I trim my chicken breasts and cut them up to make stir-fries at home. It IS meat, even though they have eyes, noses, feathers, and fur on them. I just don’t think about that, I think instead about how happy the birds will be to have dinner, and how maybe, just maybe they will notice I am feeding them. I mean, I want to stay on the good side of the birds! You know the old saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Well, I think that is true with the birds, also. Well maybe it won’t make them love me, but at least they know that I produce dinner, which certainly can’t hurt! So I have to say I love most things I do for the Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience, and there isn’t anything that I truly dislike about the work, which for me is really closer to play. It is really hard to call this “work” when it fills me with such joy.
Question from visitors:
Do I always want to come work?
I am not a morning person by nature. One of my big thrills in retiring was that I could finally live on my own natural clock. My nature tells me to go to bed sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. and get up around 8 a.m.. But sometimes in order to get to the museum on time for working with the birds, I can’t do that. I have to arise two hours before I am due to be at the museum, so that I can feed and water our wild birds, as well as my parrot, before I have breakfast, get ready, and drive to town. So I have had to adjust my natural clock again, and am really really trying to go to bed around 11 p.m. so that I can get up around 7 a.m. I don’t always succeed. Thus, when I sit reading until 12:30 or 1 a.m., I sometimes wake up, wishing I could just roll over and stay in bed another hour. I have to drag myself up and drink that coffee. Thankfully I am very sensitive to caffeine, so it only takes one cup to get me moving. But as SOON as I get in the car and begin to drive toward the museum, my spirits immediately lift, and I can hardly wait to see who will be standing on my glove that day.