Photograph by Chris Smith
But the hawk was focused on one thing only – the stuffed jackrabbit toy animal that a young visitor, Jack Bucheit, dragged behind him on a string. And when Jack dashed into the field, running at full speed, the hawk swooped down even faster, its talons out and cinching into the rabbit upon impact. The crowd, for their part, loved it. A chorus of oohs and aahs erupted as another hawk joined in, and on the ground the birds began picking at the rabbit with their beaks. One of the center’s educators, Natalie Hendrickson, approached the birds and, with one leather-gloved hand, traded out the toy jackrabbit for a few bits of raw beef.
“We use a very simple, very effective training technique called positive reinforcement,” explains Audrey Poplin, the husbandry coordinator at the center and an educator emceeing the flight demonstration. “We simply ask the birds to display natural behaviors. And when they do, we reward them with something they want.”
Such a technique is not far from how the center approaches its visitors, who for the price of admission are rewarded with a one-hour guided tour of the aviaries and then a one-hour flight demonstration, as well as access to the grounds all day. What’s reinforced, though, is the importance of birds.
Leading the tour, Director of Education Stephen Schabel cites the reasons why: Birds are sensitive to environmental change and accessible to humans for research. “And birds,” he says, “are already kind of likeable. I think if we took a survey of people in general, most people would say they like birds. They have these likeable characteristics. They sing, they fly, they’re colorful in many cases. So we’re already paying attention to them. So those things together make them this perfect indicator for protecting the most important animal on the planet, which is … who? Me!”
It’s the kind of message that is at the heart of the center, and that comes down directly from the center’s founder and executive director, Jim Elliott.
“One of the most incredible things about birds is the insight they provide for us in the ecological health overall – that’s globally, not just locally,” Elliott says. “There’s no better window on ecological health than wild birds.”
Elliott founded what was then known as the Charleston Raptor Center out of his house in 1991, while moonlighting from his day job as a real estate broker. In his 25 years at the helm, he has helped grow the center into one of the state’s most important non-profits, with nearly 100 trained volunteers and a full-time staff housed in three departments: medical, research and education.
The Center for Birds of Prey is also one of only two of its kind on the East Coast to house an oiled-bird treatment facility. And in 2016, Elliott was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, which is the highest civilian award given out by the governor of South Carolina.
Yet, for all his success, he still considers himself a “student of birds,” especially raptors – eagles, falcons, vultures, owls, kites, hawks and other species that are the center’s primary focus.
“Historically there’s been animosity toward these predators,” Elliott says. “But they just have a charismatic nature. They’re very compelling birds because of the niche they occupy in the food cycle. We get more information from them, and over the past few years I’ve been able to witness a tangible, measurable shift in people’s attitude toward birds of prey.” In large part, that shift could be a result of the tireless efforts of the center. A nominee for City Paper’s coveted Best of Charleston award as Best Attraction, The Center for Birds of Prey now hosts more than 12,000 visitors a year, Thursdays-Saturdays when the tour runs.
Additional events the center runs throughout the year include: Bird Songs, a Nashville Songwriters in the Round event in April; an annual fundraising gala called Wild at Wingswood in October; a three-day birding festival, Zugunruhefest, in September; migratory bird walks in winter, spring, and fall; and photography days four times a year. These special programs, along with the additional support of research grants, help sustain the center financially. There is, however, an irony to this. For all the support that humans give the center, it is human interaction that most often necessitates a bird’s admittance to the center’s Avian Medical Clinic. (Elliot estimates that 70 percent of the birds admitted are there because of human interaction.) A large part of that problem comes from careless hunters using lead shot and leaving even just a few pellets in the bodies of still-alive birds. This not only debilitates the animal, the lead poisons them.