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Visitors to the Center for Birds of Prey watch a falconry demonstration.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Birds of prey: Staff and patients at center don’t get too attached

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Jim Elliott’s dedication to raptors began with a single injured osprey that he nursed back to health and returned to the wild.

A quarter century later, the Center for Birds of Prey near Awendaw in Charleston County treats more than 600 injured eagles, hawks, owls, kites, osprey and buzzards a year and uses its platform to teach the public about the beauty and value of these majestic creatures. Programs are open to the public Thursday through Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.

“I grew up in the Lowcountry — the marshes, creeks and rivers — and like so many learned to appreciate it,” said Elliott, a former commercial real estate broker. That appreciation extended to wild birds. “I learned in the late ’80s about a significant number of birds of prey injured in South Carolina every year due to some human interaction, some purposeful but most not,” he said. “There was no place in the state for birds to go and get a professional level of care. There were a lot of well-intentioned folks patching birds together, but in terms of true avian medicine, in trying to get as many as we could back out, it was a void. Somewhere along the line, I thought we’d try and address that.”

Elliott kept his day job in real estate for a few years before he realized he had to make a choice. “I wasn’t as smart as I originally thought,” he said. He began with eight birds the first year, had 33 the next and surpassed 100 the next. This was not going to be a part-time job. Elliott acquired a little Sunday school building in McClellanville, moved it near his house in the woods of the Francis Marion National Forest and converted it into a surgical suite and critical care unit. He formed a non-profit and volunteered at raptor centers around the country to learn about avian medicine.

When Charleston lawyer Joe Rice gave the center a 152-acre tract in 2003, Elliott’s dream began to take shape. It opened to the public in 2005 with flight demonstrations and tours that brought visitors in close proximity to birds that could not be returned to the wild. Behind the scenes is a state-of-the-art hospital with an ophthalmologist, an internist and an orthopedist. “The level of care is rather sophisticated,” Elliott said.

About half the birds brought to the center heal and return to the wild, but more than a quarter die from injuries or have to be euthanized. “It’s not really doing them a service if they have one wing or one leg,” Elliott said. “We have to make some very tough decisions about where that line is drawn. We do try to save as many of the birds as we can. Those that are suitable are placed in educational facilities. About half of the 120 birds we keep as resident birds have come through the medical facilities and can’t be released. The other half are captive bred for this purpose.”

Elliott said the center breeds birds for a couple of reasons. It doesn’t want to take birds out of the wild to sustain a resident population and wants to develop the expertise of breeding endangered birds. “The Peregrine falcon was just about wiped out by DDT. The population re-established itself. That captive breeding expertise can be a very valuable tool, a nice arrow to have in your quiver if the species gets reduced,” he said.

While a dozen staffers present the center’s message to the public during demonstrations at the center and on the road at schools and festivals, Elliott said he is most proud of the center’s volunteers. “This amazing group of people volunteered 18,000 hours last year,” Elliott said. They do everything from mow grass and run the ticket booth to work in the hospital.

Among the regulars are Katie Maleckar, owner of Prince George Framing on Front Street, and Irene Mobley of Georgetown. “It’s my passion,” Maleckar said. She handles birds, cleans and feeds on the education side two days a week and any other time she’s needed and can get away from her shop. Maleckar and some friends carry wild birds in the Georgetown Christmas parade and she has some owls visit the frame shop at Halloween. Mobley began volunteering in 1999 when she called the center about a Cooper’s hawk trapped inside Walmart. She and her husband began transporting birds, and when he died of lung cancer in 2004 she volunteered at the medical clinic. “We do everything you would think a hospital would do,” she said, “trying to get them back to health.”

Neither the volunteers nor the employees get attached to birds. They are wild animals, said naturalist Meghan Sparkman. “They are not pets. They are not our friends. They view us as bigger predatory animals,” she said. Birds are not given names, only numbers. Elliott wants everyone to understand this is not a roadside bird show. A red-tailed hawk used to greet visitors before a tour is No. 4,538, according to volunteer handler Randy Sitton of Summerville. The center still has bird No. 14, another red-tailed hawk that arrived in 1992, along with Nos. 36 and 83 among the old-timers. The new ones get numbers above 7,000 now.

“South Carolina citizens are our eyes and ears when it comes to finding birds,” Sparkman said. “Humans are not always great for the animals around us.” In addition to healing birds, the center promotes the message about how injuries can be avoided. Roadside litter is one of the main causes, she said. Food scraps attract rodents, and they attract owls and hawks. “We can’t fix a dead bird,” Sparkman said. “We can stop litter that attracts mice to the road.”

Vultures are attracted by road kill. “They have a dirty job,” she said, “but they are not dirty animals.” Vultures can turn their heads 270 degrees while they clean their feathers with their beaks. The one place they can not clean is their heads. That’s why vultures have no feathers on their heads or faces. “Without vultures,” Sparkman said, “rodents, wild dogs, hyenas and coyotes take their place. India has the highest incidence of rabies because they lost 95 percent of their vulture population and wild dogs took their place. I cannot think of a bird that does more environmental good for people yet has such a bad reputation.”

The center also gets a lot of baby birds that fall from nests. People don’t realize how quickly and permanently a bird imprints on them. Schabel said an owl used in flight demonstrations was found as a hatchling by people who took him home and fed him. “He might have had a chance in the wild, Schabel said, “but he thinks he’s human. If you find a young bird on the ground, the last thing you should do is give it something to eat. It does not help the bird at all. Leave it or put it back in the nest. Even that may not be the right thing to do. Maybe the mom kicked it out of the nest because she knew something was wrong. Maybe big brother kicked him out of the nest. Maybe my dog scared the bird and it fell out of the nest. It’s a personal, ethical decision.”

That reverence for wild things is what the center promotes. “Birds coming into the clinic helped us understand the dynamics of human-bird interactions,” Elliott said. “We saw immediately there was a need for education. We just weren’t that informed what the opportunities were to minimize our footprint. We have a lot of impact on these birds. It’s important we do what we do as prudently as we can.”

Elliott would like to see the center’s attendance numbers double over the next few years to about 25,000 annually. That feels about right, he said. “Boone Hall gets 150,000 visitors a year,” he said, “and they are eight minutes away. It’s a doable thing for us. We just want to ease into it. As a non-profit with a mission, we have to have balance.”

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