Tetonscapes: Flights & Feathers

At the Jackson Hole Airport, meet an owl, falcon, eagle, or hawk while you wait for your luggage.   

By Maggie Theodora

Every Saturday morning, the Teton Raptor Center offers arriving passengers at the Jackson Hole Airport the opportunity to see raptors up close. The nonprofit has 14 raptors in its “teaching team;” these include eagles, hawks, owls, and falcons. Photo by Ryan Dorgan

“THAT IS THE coolest thing I have ever seen in my entire life” is not something often overheard at an airport. But Becky Collier, education director at the Teton Raptor Center, says she hears it, and also “Did that just happen?” and “Can you believe that?” almost every time she’s at the Jackson Hole Airport. She also says she sometimes sees tears of amazement. Education staff, including Collier, and volunteers from the Raptor Center bring several of the 14 raptors on the nonprofit’s “teaching team” to the arrivals area of the Jackson Hole Airport from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Saturday during the summer and winter. Passengers waiting for their bags can meet an eagle, hawk, owl, or falcon, and maybe even feed one a bit of raw ground beef. “We’re helping people see wildlife before they even leave the airport,” Collier says. 

The raptors are not in cages, but perched on thick leather gloves worn by their handlers. “This is probably the closest most people will ever get to a raptor,” Collier says. (Worried one of the birds, all of which are predators, might attack you? Birds are attached to gloves with leather straps, so they can’t get far.) Collier is not aware of another airport that has a raptor program. “I know there’s a movement across the country to get therapy dogs into airports to help people with stress and anxiety, but, to my knowledge, we’re the only airport that does raptors,” she says. “I think this is a function of our airport being small and having a cool vision.”

Annually the Raptor Center does about 430 educational programs. Flights and Feathers reaches more people than any other program. “Between eight and ten planes land while we’re there,” Collier says. “We see about 1,200 guests every week.” Collier says it’s not just arriving passengers. “There are people who come to the airport just to see the birds,” she says. (To compare: The average attendance at a Raptor Center program at the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, the nonprofit’s second busiest site, is about 300 per week.) Also, “It’s an opportunity for us to meet people who would not necessarily seek out the Raptor Center. At other events, it’s people who are interested in raptors seeking us out. At the airport we’re catching people who aren’t otherwise looking for it. They’re here to ski, or for business, and they meet a bald eagle at the airport.” 

This spring the Raptor Center created an informational card for each of the birds on its teaching team. “They’re like baseball cards, but for birds,” Collier says. The cards will be passed out to kids (and adults, if they ask) when they meet a raptor. “Every Saturday it’s a different groups of birds,” Collier says. “You never know which ones you’ll meet. The idea is that kids can collect all the cards. They’re a tangible takeaway from what is, for most people, a totally unique and amazing interaction.” JH

| Posted in JH Living