Originally published in Points West magazine
The Building of an Empire…. Well, a New Program Anyway! Audiences Rapt with Raptors
By Melissa Hill
Assistant Curator in Charge of Raptors, Draper Natural History Museum
There was a time when I wouldn’t have considered myself “happy.” Now, it’s odd to think that just one year ago, I had become at least moderately happy with my career and life in the suburbs of Denver thanks to some birds. Yes, my outlook completely changed as I found myself working with raptors (birds of prey) again after far too long a break. I was employed with HawkQuest, a raptor education group in Colorado that traveled to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center the previous two summers to give lectures. I still recall our first evening in Cody in 2009 when I turned to Dr. Charles Preston, natural history curator, and said, “So, are you hiring?” I didn’t even care what position might be available! I wanted to leave Denver and move back to a small town where people were friendly and genuine. After spending only a few minutes in Cody and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, I knew I had found that place.
Little did I know that Dr. Preston had actually been planning a live raptor education program even before he spearheaded the opening of the Draper Natural History Museum in 2002. Here we are, nearly two and a half years later, and I’m living my dream. It’s been a lot of work, with a few minor setbacks, several headaches, and a whole lot of fun, but I’m proud to say that the Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience* is here!
*[Ed. Note: since the original publication of this article, the program’s name has changed to Draper Museum Raptor Experience.]
Musing about the mews
After arriving in Cody in 2011, my first task was to design the living space for the birds, called a mews. I drew up a plan to accommodate the five birds the state of Wyoming would allow for educational programs and showed the plans to the state game warden from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department; he would inspect the mews upon completion. Was that ever a good idea! After talking to the game warden, I realized we weren’t on the same page. We were each using a different guideline for housing birds of prey—his for raptor rehabilitation and mine for non-releasable, permanent residents.
I revised the plans and armed myself with the references I needed to back up my design. I planned to show the game warden exactly why I had chosen the sizes for the enclosures we intended to build. I dropped off the design at his office, and then held my breath as I waited to hear back from him. What if he still had concerns? Had I taken this job and moved across two states only to fail before the program even got off the ground?
It’s amazing the fear that can overtake you when you step completely out of your comfort zone. This was a new adventure for me. Granted, I had worked at three different raptor organizations—each an amazing learning experience for me. I knew I was great at handling raptors as well as teaching kids and adults alike about the birds that I so love, but I wasn’t the one in charge before. I had never had the weight of an entire program riding on my decisions. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this; I was starting to panic.
Nevertheless, I prepared to argue my case and “save the program,” but it proved to be totally unnecessary. “If you build what you have on these plans, I’ll approve the building,” the warden said. Hooray! The first obstacle was overcome! Now it was time to start building.
Calling all inhabitants, er, raptors
I forwarded my design to the mews construction project manager, Center Carpenter Matt Bree. His task was to turn my design into actual working blueprints and gain approval from the Planning & Zoning Commission. Finally, we broke ground on the mews on April 19, 2011, to very little fanfare, but much excitement for those most closely attached to the program.
With construction under way, I looked for suitable birds for our program. Dr. Preston and I agreed to showcase birds found in the Greater Yellowstone region. On the first day of my search, I learned of several birds that seemed perfect for our program: an American kestrel, a peregrine falcon, and a great horned owl. As it turned out, the kestrel and owl already had homes, but fortunately, the rehabilitator had another great horned owl that could not be released—a requirement for captive birds of prey in the United States. We discussed the possibility of the owl coming to live in Cody, and after several e-mail exchanges, we decided he would be a perfect fit. “Teasdale,” named after Teasdale, Utah, where he was found by hikers, was ours!
Shortly after that, I discovered that the peregrine falcon was still available, and the rehab facility was very excited to have finally found her a home. It is very difficult to place non-flighted peregrine falcons with education programs—everyone wants a falcon that can fly and show off his skills. We weren’t concerned about all that, though, and the facility reserved “Hayabusa” (the Japanese word for peregrine falcon) for us!
As our program began, I knew I wanted either a red-tailed hawk or a rough-legged hawk. Normally, red-tails are very common, but I couldn’t find any that needed a home. Finally, I stumbled upon a perfect candidate. Not only was he beautiful, but he had been in an education program for years, which meant he was already trained. Again, a few e-mails later, “Isham,” named after one of Buffalo Bill’s horses, was set to join our program. We were off to a great start!
Interns to the rescue
In mid-May, our summer interns, Nate Horton and Pat Rodgers, arrived. We had a slight problem, however: The mews was barely under construction, and we had no birds for their raptor education internship. I trained them to hold raptors and tried to teach them as much as I could without actually having live birds on site. Fortunately, both interns were very handy and played a major part in the construction of the mews as well as assisting Dr. Preston in his golden eagle field research. Amazing interns, they could help with any project, and work independently when necessary. I desperately hoped that the birds would arrive before the interns headed back to the University of Wyoming at summer’s end.
Finally, at the end of June the mews was complete! Within two days, the Wyoming Game & Fish warden inspected and approved the building. Then, I handed him our application for the owl, falcon, and hawk, which he said he’d sign and send to the state office that night. In addition, I immediately mailed our application for federal permits to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
And then we waited….
A note printed very clearly on the federal permit application instructed us to allow thirty to sixty days for processing but advised that it could take even longer. We assumed we would wait quite a while since Wyoming falls within one of the busiest regions of the Fish & Wildlife Service. How shocked we were when our approved permits arrived in just thirty days!
Time for raptor wranglers
While we waited for our state permits (required in conjunction with federal permits to keep captive raptors in the state of Wyoming), I received a call from a friend in Kansas who also works in wildlife rehabilitation. She had a baby turkey vulture that was imprinted on humans and would need a home in a captive program like ours. Would I want her? Of course! Turkey vultures are my favorite birds, and I was really hoping to find one for our program. “Suli,” derived from the Cherokee word for “vulture,” would be our fourth bird.
When our state approval finally came in the middle of August, I was “chomping at the bit” to get the birds to Cody. Within a few days of receiving our permits, I put 2,200 miles on my car, and we had three birds in the mews. I spent the next few days getting acquainted with them and soon started training. It wasn’t long before all the birds were standing nicely on the glove, and we began bringing in the volunteers to learn how to hold them and care for them.
Even before I arrived in Cody, folks around town had heard about the upcoming program and were eager to volunteer to help with the birds. I had met several of them and knew we had an impressive group of volunteers lined up.
I was astonished at how well both the volunteers and the birds handled their training. On September 5, 2011, we made our first public appearance with Isham, and within four days, all three birds had been in the public spotlight. It was all finally coming together!
In mid-September, I traveled to Colorado and then to Kansas to pick up Suli. At last, we had all our birds— for the time-being anyway. Although she had been raised by humans, this turkey vulture was very timid, and I spent a large chunk of the next week getting her to trust me so that I could get close to her and eventually get her equipment on. Finally, she trusted me enough to eat dinner from my glove! Once we’d achieved that, her training proceeded by leaps and bounds.
The rest of September and October was a whirlwind of training. I suddenly had fifteen volunteers who were enthusiastic and incredibly helpful. The birds were getting out into public areas almost daily, and we received a lot of great press.
Time for the big test
A huge test for the program was coming up, though—the Center’s Annual Holiday Open House on December 3. The birds were scheduled to be available for viewing for three hours, and I had most of my volunteers signed up to help. It was a very big deal for us as the event typically draws several thousand visitors to the Center. Could the birds handle crowds like that? Could the volunteers?
Once again, I worried for nothing. Not only did everyone—birds and volunteers alike—do well for the three hours, they remained in the limelight for nearly five hours! An estimated three thousand people saw the birds that day and declared us a huge success.
The rest of December breezed by with most of the training focusing on getting the birds used to traveling in kennels or travel boxes for outreach programs. We were back in action for our next challenge on December 30, 2011, though, as the birds traveled twenty miles east to Powell, Wyoming, for their first offsite program. Again, they were a huge success! All the hard work I had invested in the program over the last nine months was paying off—and all the worry was really for naught.
Wrapping up the raptor story
So, that’s the past year of my life in a nutshell. It’s been a crazy ride, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, and the best is yet to come. The future is very bright for the Draper Museum Raptor Experience; we are ready to travel to schools, churches, assisted living centers, civic group gatherings, and other venues for fun and informative programs. When summer arrives, we’ll concentrate our efforts on programs right here at the Center. I have very big plans for presentations in our beautiful gardens that showcase our amazing “avian ambassadors.” Will there be flight demonstrations? Will there be excitement and adventure around every corner? Perhaps… I guess you’ll just have to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and see for yourself!
As Assistant Curator for the Draper Museum Raptor Experience, Melissa Hill works in the Center’s Draper Natural History Museum to establish, launch, and manage the new program. She comes to the Center from HawkQuest, a nonprofit raptor education organization based in Colorado that has presented popular raptor programs at the Center in recent years. She was lead lecturer there and prior to that, served as curator of birds at Reptile Gardens in South Dakota, where she conducted programs, trained birds, and taught staff and volunteers to care for and handle them. Hill’s bachelor’s degree is in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and Management from the University of Wyoming.
The Draper Museum Raptor Experience is made possible in part by funding from the William H. Donner Foundation and the Donner Canadian Foundation. Read more about the program on our raptors page.