Live Yellowstone raptors at Wyoming's Buffalo Bill Historical Center leave visitors rapt with attention

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The Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, allows visitors, who might not otherwise have the opportunity, to meet “in person” four birds of prey indigenous to the Greater Yellowstone region.

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Melissa Hill with Isham

...the decidedly silly-looking bird flaps its wings in one last act of vanity that indicates, 'I’m very cool.'

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One is not likely to see live animals at a traditional museum. However, such is not the case at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, where the Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience brings visitors face to face with four of the area’s most recognizable birds—including Suli, the turkey vulture. At the sound of applause—as if on cue—this decidedly silly-looking bird flaps its wings in one last act of vanity that indicates, “I’m very cool.”

The “avian ambassadors” even have Facebook pages and will soon have t-shirts available with their likenesses. But, it’s their “personal appearances”—whether at the Center’s Draper Museum of Natural History or at the local middle school—that have people talking.

Each of the raptors, as birds of prey are called, has had an injury that prohibits its return to the wild and had necessitated wildlife rehabilitation before moving to Cody. Hikers near Teasdale, Utah, discovered Teasdale, the great horned owl with a severe wing injury . Named after one of Buffalo Bill’s horses, Isham, the red-tailed hawk, was struck by a car in New Mexico and suffered such severe damage to his right eye that it had to be removed. With an impact injury near the “wrist” joint on her right wing, the peregrine falcon Hayabusa (Japanese for falcon) has very poor flight.

Assistant Curator Melissa Hill says that the Center’s turkey vulture thinks she’s a human. “A Kansas couple found Suli—which is the Cherokee word for vulture—in a haystack when she was only a couple weeks old,” Hill explains. “The couple placed her in a nearby building assuming her parents would hear her and continue to care for her at the new nest site. What they didn’t know is that vultures don’t have a voicebox and can only hiss and grunt. When her parents didn’t return, the couple took her to the Milford Nature Center in Junction City, Kansas. The center did not have an adult turkey vulture to act as a foster parent, so Suli grew up with people. Because of this she did not gain the critical skills for survival that her parents would have taught her and she can never be released back into the wild.”

The raptors are kept in a mews, built to accommodate five birds the state of Wyoming would allow for educational programs. (The Center hopes to acquire a golden eagle or other species to round out the avian aggregate.) Once completed, the program and the construction had to be approved by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before birds could even be considered for “residence.”

In addition, the raptor experience is dependent on specially-trained volunteers who learn how to hold and care for the birds. Since the operative word with raptors is “prey,” the volunteers must learn to curb their squeamishness as they feed the birds small rodents, frozen just for this purpose. The birds are housed in separate “stalls” in the mews, but are often tethered to perches outside the building for sun, fresh air, and exercise. For their public appearances, their handlers don thick gloves to which the birds are tethered.

"The birds have developed quite a following and have become very popular, but it's traditional in such programs that the animals aren't named," Hill adds. "This helps people realize that they're still wild animals. However, the first question I get from students is, 'What's his name?' So, we decided they couldn't be anonymous any longer."

Read more about the Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

Founded in 1917, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center has been committed to connecting people with the Spirit of the American West ever since as it weaves the varied threads of the western experience—history and myth, art and Native culture, firearms technology and the nature of Yellowstone—into the rich panorama that is the American West. The Center, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is now open daily, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. On May 1, summer hours go into effect: 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily. For general information, visit our Web site, or call 307.587.4771.

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Marguerite House

Melissa Hill
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