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Raptors take center stage at zoo’s first Keeper Chat
Thurston, the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo’s Great Horned Owl, perches on the gloved hand of Zoo Supervisor and Curator Ashley Burdick as she presents a Keeper Chat, Saturday afternoon. Monthly programs are planned for 2022. - photo by Susan Thacker

In honor of National Bird Day, the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo featured two of its raptors Saturday in the first of a series of monthly Keeper Chats. Zoo Supervisor/Curator Ashley Burdick was joined by animal ambassador Thurston, a Great Horned Owl.

Officially, National Bird Day was observed on Jan. 5. Created by the Avian Welfare Coalition and Born Free USA in 2002, the event can be observed by reading an Audubon book, building a birdhouse or feeding some birds. Better yet, visit the Great Bend zoo, where the main building is named the Raptor Center, after the hawks (including kites), eagles, vultures and owls that are rehabilitated by zoo staff.

Two raptors that couldn’t be rehabilitated and returned to the wild were featured Saturday. Thurston is a Great Horned Owl that has been at the zoo for about 20 years, and Penelope is a Mississippi Kite that arrived a couple of years ago.

Both birds have had too much interaction with humans to return to the wild, Burdick said. Thurston was raised with chickens and even today will sometimes make a “bok-bok” clucking sound like a chicken. In the wild, Great Horned Owls typically live into their teens but in captivity have been known to live to age 50. Thurston is over 30 years old.

Thurston seemed content to sit on Burdick’s leather glove but visitors to the zoo weren’t allowed to touch the birds. There were some feathers on display so people could feel how soft they are. They could also examine an owl pellet. Pellets are undigested parts of an owl’s food – such as hair and bones – that are coughed up after eating.

One sign that Thurston has been influenced by humans is that he will sometimes give his food to his keepers.

“A male will share his food with his female,” Burdick said. “He likes to give us his mouse.”

Owls have pretty good eyesight but especially rely on their hearing for hunting, usually at night. “They can find prey 300 feet away.”

Penelope the Mississippi Kite was also found by humans who attempted to raise her for a while, zookeeper Beccca Curtiss said. However, it is illegal to have a raptor for a pet.

Mississippi Kites and Great Horned Owls are the most common raptors brought to the zoo for rehabilitation. If you find an injured raptor, Burdick suggests wearing thick gloves and throwing a towel over it. Then put it in a cardboard box or a pet taxi and bring it to the zoo.

Burdick said Keeper Chats will be a monthly event at the zoo this year. The next one will be a celebration of the female lions’ fifth birthday on Saturday, Feb. 12. The Great Bend Zoological Society will have refreshments at 1 p.m. and guests can watch the lions receive a special enrichment treat at 1:30 p.m.