Moose. Bison. Elk. Black and grizzly bears. These are the animals you usually think of when you hear “Jackson Hole, Wyoming.” But plenty of raptors—eagles, falcons, owls also call the valley home. And when these majestic birds get injured the Teton Raptor Center nurses them back to health.
Former Grand Teton National Park research biologist Roger Smith and outdoor educator Margaret Creel began rehabilitating raptors in 1991, first in their home in Rafter J and then in limited facilities at 3 Creek Ranch, an exclusive golf community three miles south of the town of Jackson. In 1997, the two officially established the Teton Raptor Center and secured non-profit status. With a mission designed to help birds of prey through education, conservation, and rehabilitation, the TRC has both U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and State of Wyoming raptor rehabilitation and education permits. In 2009, TRC moved into the historic Hardeman Barns— built in the 1940s— at the base of Teton Pass in Wilson.
“One of the most satisfying components of the job is returning birds to the wild,” says McCarthy. “There’s nothing as exciting, as heart warming, and as inspiring as the release of that bird and knowing that you’ve given it a second chance at freedom.”
The center is open year-round and next month hosts its biggest event of the year, RaptorFest. For the first time, RaptorFest is an entire week long (in the past, it’s been a day).
Events kick off Sunday, June 15. From 1 – 5 p.m. at the center in Wilson, there’s music, food, activities, and birds, birds, birds! You might learn raptor facts such as why they have hooked beaks, what’s up with their talons, and exactly how good is their eyesight?
Most definitely, you’ll meet Owly, a Great Horned Owl and one of TRC’s star personalities. Owly’s been at the center for over nine years. Amy McCarthy, TRC’s executive director estimates that every kid in Teton County has met Owly at some point. Struck by a car in 2004 when she wasn’t yet a year old, Owly sustained a break in her wrist that extended into her wing joint. Even after the break healed, she was unable to fly and became a permanent TRC resident.
Chances are good you’ll also meet the other two TRC permanent residents: Gus the Golden Eagle and Ruby the Red-tailed Hawk. Stick around the center and watch a gyrfalcon in action. Captive bred at a raptor propagation program in Washington, the gyrfalcon, owned by TRC’s program director Jason Jones, will be two years old this summer. Gyrfalcons are the largest of the falcon species, and Jones’ gyrfalcon is still growing. White and brown speckled, the bird is hooded in a miniature leather cap. In the middle of the field south of the main barn, Jones raises his hand into the air and the bird rockets into the sky. Don’t worry. Eventually he’ll come back.
On June 17-19, the center offers guided field trips in three key Jackson Hole raptor habitats— the sage flats of Grand Teton National Park, the Snake River, and the boreal forests of GTNP. (Cost is $60 per day or $150 for all three trips. Space is very limited and advanced reservations are required.)
Ending the week’s festivities is the Wild Wings Artists’ Workshop on Friday, June 20. Valley artist Shannon Troxler Thal hosts a three-hour painting and drawing workshop with TRC’s birds of prey as models ($60 per person).
If you can’t catch these special events, TRC also does hour-long tours year-round. In these, you’ll learn raptor facts and get to meet a resident bird. If it’s Owly you get to meet, know that her hearing is so good that she can hear your heart beating inside your chest. Also, she can capture prey in the dark, even if the prey is under 18-inches of snow.
Though TRC has permanent residents, their ultimate goal is to help any injured birds fully recover. “We don’t want birds to become permanent residents,” McCarthy says. TRC receives injured birds from all around Idaho and Wyoming. The center’s team of veterinarians and volunteers work diligently to help the birds regain their health with the goal of releasing them back into the wild.
Since 2010, which marked TRC’s first full year at the Hardeman Barns, the group has taken in 218 injured, ill, and orphaned birds of prey, amounting to over 5,000 patient care days. An average of forty-two-percent of these birds are released back into the wild. “I know that may not sound high,” says McCarthy, “But these birds need to be in peak performance. The standard for release rates in our line of work is generally closer to thirty-three percent.” TRC raptors unable to be returned to the wild have ended up at educational centers and facilities such as Rocky Gap State Park in Flintstone, Md. and Wild Wings Environmental Education in Centennial, CO, among other places.
Teton Raptor Center has hour-long scheduled programs at noon and 2:00 Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Wednesdays throughout the summer. Private tours are available by appointment, which TRC recommends you make a week in advance (although sometimes they can accommodate less notice). Tours are $12 for adults and $10 ages 4-12 and seniors 65+. Children under 3 are free.