Northern Saw-Whet Owl - My Inner Owl

Interview with Susan Burchardt, Raptor Keeper at Woodland Park Zoo - About Owls

Woodland Park Zoo is well-established in Seattle since over 100 years. The mission; To save wildlife and inspire everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives.

It’s a non-profit organisation with a very important cause that is well-worth supporting.

The zoo includes 92 acres of exhibits and public spaces, which are divided into bioclimatic zones, featuring different natural habitats ranging from humid tropical rain forests and coastal deserts to temperate rain forests like those of the Pacific Northwest.

Over a million visitors per year visit Woodland Park Zoo that is open to the public daily.

Its collection includes:

1,090 animal specimens
300 animal species
35 endangered and 5 threatened animal species
7,000 trees
50,000+ shrubs and herbs
1,000+ plant species
A sensory garden

We recently had the pleasure to do an interview with their raptor keeper Susan Burchardt.

Susan Burchardt - Raptor Keeper at Woodland Park Zoo

1. When did your interest in animals begin and how did it develop to raptors?

I was always interested in animals and biology and science. I remember doing badges about animals in Girl Scouts and going to workshops about birds in high school. But I didn’t think I would specialize in birds. In fact, I expected to work with people. When I went to university, I started as pre-med, studying for a degree in zoology. Towards the end of my education I realized that I didn’t want to be stuck indoors for the rest of my life. I took a summer job doing a bird show and that’s where I really learned to love birds. Flying raptors at that show was enthralling. After that, I just kept diving deeper and deeper into behavior and biology and training and birding.

2. How do owls differ from other raptors?

Owls have several adaptations that distinguish them from other raptors. Of course, they are predatory birds with powerful feet and a curved upper beak just like hawks and eagles. But many owl species are nocturnal. They have very large eyes and pretty great night vision. For many species, their ears are asymmetrical, helping them to zero in on where a sound is coming from. They have soft, dense plumage that quiets their flight, and a fringe on the front edge of their forward wing feathers, effectively silencing their approach.

3. Is Woodland Park a traditional zoo? Could you please tell us a bit about the mission?

Woodland Park Zoo has been a part of Seattle since 1899 and has evolved over the years to include conservation initiatives, as well as to be an oasis for fun and education in our city. Our mission is to save wildlife and inspire everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives.

4. What is an ambassador animal and which owl species might be included?

Ambassador animals are animals that are raised and trained to be comfortable in close proximity to humans so that they can work in educational settings at the zoo and sometimes even off grounds. Currently at our zoo this includes a burrowing owl, a spectacled owl, a barn owl and a pharaoh eagle owl.

A Spectacled Owl at Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, USA

© Chris licensed under CC BY 2.0.

5. How would you describe your daily contact with owls? What does it include?

When I work with Ambassador owls, we check on them in the morning, weigh them and move them outside. Then later in the day we fly them or take them out on programs to talk with the public about them.

When I work with exhibit owls, I check on them in the morning. Late in the morning, I go in and clean, and pick up leftovers from the previous day’s meal. Towards the end of the day, I go in and do a little training and feed them.

6. Can you see a difference in behavior between the owl species you work with? Or is it more on an individual level from owl to owl?

They really have both kinds of differences. By species, spectacled owls tend to be very thoughtful before they are willing to take a flight, but they are incredibly intelligent and good at problem solving. Burrowing owls are quicker to take action. Our female snowy owl, June, is pretty laid back and comfortable around us while her mate, Dusty, is slower to accept new people and quicker to jump away.

Snowy Owl Couple - My Inner Owl

Snowy Owl couple

7. I’m sure you have plenty of interesting and fun owl stories from own experiences. Would you mind sharing some with us?

One of the spectacled owls I worked with is a whiz at solving puzzles. We would play a game where I’d hide a treat under a cup, but he had to figure out which cup it was under out of many. He also could fly to a set of tiles and stand on the blue one, every time!

8. Do you have any good advice on how we all can contribute to the conservation of wild life and a healthy ecosystem? Maybe something we could easily incorporate in our day-to-day life?

There are so many things we can do to benefit wildlife! Obviously some are pretty easy like recycling and composting. We can choose non-lead sinkers for fishing and be really thoughtful about our consumer choices: avoid buying plastic, buy sustainably produced food, eat local.

9. And my final question to you. If people would like to support Woodland Park Zoo, economically or other way, what would you recommend?

Thank you so much for asking this. You can follow us on social media and contribute to our relief fund at zoo.org/relief

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