CODY, Wyo. (AP) The turkey vulture opens its wings and takes a Zen-like pose in the morning sun. The young bird has come a long way since it was orphaned as a chick and left for dead in a Kansas haystack.
One of four birds resting in the mews at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the red-headed vulture has found a second chance at the Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience.
The new program marks a first for the BBHC, which has made its name with Western history collections and wildlife displays, never live animals. While the birds arrived only recently, theyve already been a hit among museum visitors.
This is a brand-new, live raptor education program through the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, said Melissa Hill, associate curator of the Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience.
We take nonreleasable birds of prey, and we use them to educate the public about their importance, not only as a general species, but in nature, and especially here in the Yellowstone area.
Hill arrived in February from Colorado and already has earned a nickname as the Raptor Wrangler. She saw the mews through construction and worked to secure the necessary permits to hold live raptors from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Located outside the BBHC, the mews is small, built like a horse barn with a tack room and a handful of stalls. Hill tends to the aviarys four occupants, which include the vulture, a peregrine falcon, a great horned owl and a red-tailed hawk.
The birds we have here have already gone through the rehabilitation process, Hill said. We know their injuries are so severe that they cannot survive in the wild ever again. Were their second chance and forever home from this point on.
Like the museums array of art and artifacts, the birds also come with a story. The vulture was orphaned as a chick and found in a Kansas haystack before it was nurtured back to health at the Milford Nature Center in Junction City, Kan.
The great horned owl was found by a Utah hiker and his dog on New Years Day. It had a broken right wing and was unable to fly well enough to survive.
Hes still only a year-and-a-half old, so hes still a young guy, Hill said, taking the yellow-eyed owl on her arm. We could end up having him for 20 to 25 years.
The red-tailed hawk, which arrived from Talking Talons in Tijeras, N.M., had suffered an injury to its right eye. The wound was so severe that the eye was removed, leaving the animal blind on one side and unable to hunt.
Like the others, the falcon also was injured in the wild. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Tucson, Ariz., nursed it back to health. The raptor still bears a scar on its right wing.
For a bird that can dive over 200 miles per hour, if your wings arent perfect, its practically a death sentence, Hill said. Its a very high-risk life they have. They need absolute perfection in their flight.
The birds are all endemic to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a sweeping landscape that biologists say is critical to the health and long-term survival of the Wests indigenous species.
The Draper Museum of Natural History, a branch of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, has long worked to educate visitors about the importance of intact ecosystems through the greater Yellowstone area.
The new raptor experience extends the museums mission, and Richard Gruber, a former docent in the Draper Lab, jumped at the opportunity to work in the raptor program.
Mostly Ive been working with dead critters, said Gruber, who arrived in Wyoming from New York eight years ago. Now I get the opportunity to work with something live.
Hill, who has made a career using birds of prey to educate the public about wildlife and habitat, said live raptor programs are few and far between in Wyoming.
The program received a private donation from the William H. Donner Foundation and the Donner Canadian Foundation. The grant was enough to fund the program for three years, after which the Buffalo Bill center hopes to make it self-sustaining.
We want the public to understand the importance of these birds and the role they play in nature and in habitat, said Hill. Were fortunate to be so close to Yellowstone, and were trying to connect people with Yellowstone through these charismatic animals.