Yellowstone Revealed: Volunteers power museum for birds of prey

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Posted at 4:37 PM, Feb 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-09 18:37:34-05

Cody - The Yellowstone area is not just home to North America’s largest mammals, like bison, bears, wolves, moose, and elk. It is also home to most of the country’s largest and most powerful raptors, including bald and golden eagles, great horned and great gray owls, hawks, and falcons.

You can see those birds of prey up close, thanks to volunteers.

It is awe-inspiring to see a golden eagle with a seven-foot wingspan, flying in the clear blue skies of northwest Wyoming. But seeing America’s most powerful raptor eye to eye is just as awe-inspiring in a different way.

A golden eagle is one of several birds of prey you can see at the Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.

Eleven years ago, the Draper Museum Raptor Experience debuted there, bringing people close to eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, and even a turkey vulture named Suli. All of the birds are unreleasable due to injury or habituation. All of them are monitored by federal and state wildlife agencies that permit the program.

“We have done 6,050 programs for the public. We’ve seen over 423,000 guests come to our programs," Draper Museum Raptor Experience Manager Melissa Hill said.

Hill says they also take the birds to about 55 schools and other facilities every year, and the programs were presented online in 158 times since the pandemic started.

All of the public programs, plus the daily care and feeding of the birds are done by Hill and one employee, along with a group of dedicated volunteers.

“When I first interviewed for the position to start the Draper Museum Raptor Experience, one of the biggest concerns I had was what kind of help we would have to do the program because I knew we would be running off of a volunteer crew," Hill said.

Cody, after all, is a town of about 10,000 people.

“But to my surprise and delight, we have always had available volunteers to help us out," Hill continued.

Volunteer Richard Gruber said, “I’ve been with this program from the inception. So, it’s about 11, 12 years. And, all of the volunteers, I think would agree that we get more out of the program than we even give to the program.”

Gruber loves teaching Raptor program audiences about all birds of prey and the contributions they make to humans.

Gruber commented, “And the most important thing that we do is we’re helpful in conveying the importance of raptors being here on Earth with us,”

Hill said, “One of the really rewarding parts of doing these outreach programs, especially when we go to schools, is when they send us thank you cards. And, these are from second graders that got to do a virtual program with Suli the turkey vulture.”

A few years ago, one Cody boy who had seen the raptor program at school told the kids who came to his birthday party to bring money for the birds in the raptor program, instead of buying him gifts. His father teared as explained that his son was excited to give his birthday money to the raptors at the Center. People donate thousands of dollars to the program every year.