For years, the raptor flight demonstrations by the Awendaw-based Center for Birds of Prey has wowed crowds gathered in Marion Square for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.
Eagles, hawks, falcons and owls put on a show of acrobatics, speed and grace in the heart of downtown Charleston in what is one of the regular, more educational features of the exposition.
The center holds similar demonstrations in Awendaw on a routine basis as part of an ongoing outreach effort.
But the educational component of the center, which under the broader umbrella of the Avian Conservation Center, is just one, more public, component of an array of research and conservation efforts the center undertakes.
Director Jim Elliott, who founded the center 23 years ago, says flight demonstrations and face-to-face contact with these magnificent birds remains important, especially in keeping young people, who are increasingly disconnected from the natural world via technology, engaged with wildlife and the valuable role they play in nature.
"The world is becoming very impersonal and robotic," says Elliott. "It's taking us away from these things (in the natural world).
"It (technology) adds to our challenge to keep this. It's like trying to hold on to an old-fashioned idea. The Earth is what it is. Just because it's not cool or moving at a pace that we can't keep up with or measure, doesn't mean that it's not valuable. We need to stay in touch with it," he adds.
All birds speak
While flight demonstrations and other educational efforts seek to keep wildlife and the natural world on the radar screen, Elliott sees the center's mission going well beyond that.
"The two things in my mind that's going to sustain this place (the center) are substance and excellence. We're not just helping rehabilitate injured birds, so that we can all feel good and get them out back out there. We're doing real meaningful work on several levels here that over time is going to contribute a great deal to this area and what we know."
Helping with national and international research efforts, he adds, goes beyond the birds.
"If the wild bird populations are doing well in the ecosystem, it is doing well. If there is a problem in the system, it very often shows up in wild birds first," says Elliott, noting West Nile Virus as an example.
"Birds are numerous and widespread. They are environmentally sensitive more than a lot of living things, so they react to change sooner and maybe more severely than other things, too. We don't always know how to understand how to interpret, but it's there and they are telling us."
Elliott believes that while birds don't talk, they are speaking to us. But it's up to us to figure out what they are saying.
By rehabilitating more than 500 orphaned and injured birds annually, the center often discovers problems that need to be fixed, and it often requires detective work.
About 10 years ago, Elliott says they kept getting eagles coming in with extreme lethargy.
While perplexing, the center's staff started putting together the pieces of the puzzle. The birds were coming in on Mondays and Tuesday from Berkeley County and notably near its landfill. They soon realized that the eagles were eating dogs and cats that had been euthanized and dumped at the landfill, so the birds were getting secondary barbiturate poisoning.
The center formed a working group with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and veterinarians to come up with new guidelines for disposing of euthanized domestic animals, notably that they be placed in a separate part of the landfill and covered with a foot and a half of soil.
The Washington Post picked up on the story and Elliott soon was contacted by officials in Colorado and Utah who had been experiencing similar problems with eagles.
Among the longest standing research efforts of the center is the South Carolina Coastal Hawk Migration Survey, started in 1995, to document trends in migration.
Elliott admits that the value of the survey only increases over time.
"One year does not tell you much, nor does five, or 10 or 15 years, can tell you a great deal on populations, whether it's numbers, timing or migration routes. All the data that we collect goes to the Hawk Migration Association of America. Over time those trends and the populations provides a great deal of valuable information. That also impacts us."
How? Namely, getting clues on climate change.
"We've seen so many changes in birds that we think are connected to climate change. We don't know what the implications are but we know it's changing. We don't know what the implications are. We just know it's changing," says Elliott.
"Atypical bird, irregular bird movements, timing for breeding is changing and shifting. It's more dynamic then a natural cycle, so we have to sort it all out, what it means."
Demonstrating its work beyond birds of prey, the Avian Conservation Center also participates in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program banding station.
Ten times a year, from May to August, staff and volunteers use mist nets in a 15-acre study area to catch and band song birds.
Patterns picked up on migrations also relate back to studies on how the climate is changing along with other relationships between bird activity and environmental health.
The Center for Birds of Prey also manages the Citizen Science for Swallow-tailed Kites program and works with multiple cooperating organizations with the mutual goal of protecting the bird, which is endangered in South Carolina.
The effort started in the early 1990s asking people to report sightings via a toll-free number. Now the effort is much higher tech and even has an app for that. The information of where the birds are ranging and nesting is used by scientists in a number of different projects.
Reported sightings have increased from 800 in the first year to 8,000 last year.
Prepared for disaster
Part of the 7,000-square-foot Avian Medical Center contains the Oiled Bird Treatment Facility, specifically designed for an efficient response in the event of an oil or contaminant spill affecting native birds. The center is the official repository for oiled birds in South Carolina.
Not only does the center have the facility, but annually staff and volunteers get training to stay prepared for a spill disaster. Surprisingly, the burden of maintaining the facility and keeping up the training, a cost of about $170,000 annually, falls squarely on the shoulders of the center. Neither the state nor industry pitches in.
"The fact is that we have a real economic asset in the port," says Elliott. "We've got Boeing and all these new industries coming in, but they have implications environmentally. All the port issues from cruise ships to dredging, it increases the risk for us."
And while South Carolina has been spared from a major disaster of that nature, Elliott says federal and state officials have told him that a spill is inevitable.
"I hope they are wrong, but if they aren't, we're ready."
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.
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