If you fly into Jackson Hole Airport on a Saturday this summer the first thing waiting to greet you won’t be a taxi driver or that friend generously picking you up in exchange for a beer.
It will be a group of magnificent, lustrous, slightly terrifying but undeniably majestic raptors.
The avian greeters are part of Flights and Feathers, a new education program of the Teton Raptor Center. The program is part of the center’s mission to advance raptor conservation through education, research and rehabilitation.
The Raptor Center has several volunteers with a cast of 14 owls, hawks, falcons and eagles every Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. right near baggage claim. Eight planes typically land during that time every week, giving the program the potential to reach 13,000 people during its run time. Every week a few hundred people come up and meet the birds.
An avian ambassador and an accompanying educator are also present at departures once ticketed passengers have gone through security on Fridays between 7 and 9 a.m.
Last Saturday there were four raptors, all owls, ready to greet the arriving crowds.
The first and smallest was Otus, a male gray-phase Eastern screech owl, resting on the arm of Samantha Douville, a Raptor Center volunteer and University of Wyoming student.
Douville explained that while Otus is indeed tiny, he is only the third smallest owl in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“You don’t have to go to exotic places to see exotic things,” she said. “We have some of the smallest owls on Earth here in Jackson.”
A self-described “bird nerd by heart,” Douville started volunteering with the Raptor Center three years ago and landed an internship there last summer for college credit. She started out wanting to work with big cats but doesn’t see raptors as that far off.
“Birds are pretty much cats that can fly,” she said. “So it’s all good.”
She explained that Otus ended up at the Raptor Center after incurring a head injury in Alabama from which he never fully healed.
Given Otus’ inability to hunt to his full capability in the wild, the owl’s options, legally, were to be put into an education system or breeding program or be put down. Luckily, the Raptor Center had space to take Otus in and start incorporating him into its programs.
Since the Raptor Center campus in Wilson is under construction, all education programming is conducted off site. Flights and Feathers is one component of that, but the Teton Raptor Center has education initiatives set up around Jackson, in addition to its ongoing research and rehabilitation work.
Off-site programs allow the birds to meet the public and allows them time out of their enclosures.
At the airport Douville has yet to encounter a negative reaction to the birds of prey. And there’s something for everyone, no matter where they’re flying from.
“We have species that are native to the valley and then species that are not native,” Douville said. “So wherever you come from there’s a good chance that you can learn about something in your backyard.”
At the other end of the raptor size scale at the airport last Saturday was K2, a Eurasian eagle owl, one of the heaviest owl species in the world, resting calmly on the arm of Raptor Care and Volunteer Coordinator Jessie Walters.
The volunteers also have mechanisms in place to ensure safety. They wear large, thick leather gloves on which the raptors rest, and the birds are attached to the gloves with leather straps so that even if they bite or flail they are not a threat to the public.
K2 ended up with the Raptor Center was because she was born in captivity and never learned how to survive in the wild. At the Raptor Center she eats a diet of frozen but thawed mice, chicks, rats, quail and rabbits, ensuring that her food won’t fight back or carry disease.
Emily Smith displayed Hemlock, a barred owl. Smith is a part of the education crew at the Raptor Center. The species gets its name from the characteristic bar patterns on its chest feathers. The reason he ended up at the Raptor Center is a common cause for concern when humans interact with wildlife. He’s an imprint.
If a raptor like Hemlock loses its fear of humans that might seem harmless at first, but it’s actually incredibly dangerous. If a family is picnicking in the park and a barred owl comes at them with a 600-pound grip strength, the bird is a threat. Smith described the three characteristics raptors share: “feet, beak, meat.” All raptors are birds of prey.
Hemlock was kidnapped as a branchling, the middle stage of development that follows nestling and precedes fledgling.
Flight and Feathers also gives folks at the Raptor Center a chance educate people not only about birds but about the dangers that humans can pose to them.
The humans who took Hemlock hand-fed him hamburger meat for several days before he ended up at a raptor center, but it was too late: He had already imprinted and would not be able to return to the wild.
Smith hopes people can take Hemlock’s story as a cautionary tale.
“When you find a bird in the wild don’t pick it up,” she said. “Don’t touch it. Don’t take it home with you.
“Call someone — us if it’s a raptor — and we can be able to tell you, ‘Hey, that’s natural ’ or ‘Hey, he might be hurt.’ Then we can go and grab them.”
Smith has encountered an overwhelmingly positive response to the program. She thinks most people delight in the opportunity to be close to the raptors in large part because of how rare a thing it is.
“Most of these people, it’s the closest they’re probably ever going to get to any of these birds,” Smith said. “Because it’s not like you’re going to walk up a couple feet away from an owl in the wild.”
Volunteer Sue Ernisse has worked with the Teton Raptor Center for over five years, but she never misses a chance to participate in its education programs. She loves teaching people about birds of prey and their importance to the ecosystem.
Last Saturday she was holding great horned owl Owly.
She loves watching people approach first with hesitance and then with awe to inspect the raptors’ feathers and ask questions.
“All the programs are fun to do,” she said. “But this one is in particular, because people have no idea that we’re going to be sitting at baggage claim.
“Watching jaw drops when they come into the building is just so much fun. And people get so engaged and ask all sorts of great questions. It’s wonderful.”