Soaring on the Wings of Eagles in South Carolina
CHARLESTON, South Carolina – What began as a medical facility for injured eagles, hawks and owls in 1991 now is a very special nature attraction in the same county as St. Michael’s Church, the Battery and the fancy restaurants on Meeting Street in historic Charleston.
The Center for Birds of Prey is in Awendaw, a community barely big enough to appear on most maps but just 35 minutes away from where “the Ashley and Cooper rivers unite to create the Atlantic Ocean,” as proud Charlestonians proclaim.
It continues in its raptor rehabilitation role, but it also has assumed a public side that provides education to the curious and stages demonstrations of aerial acrobatics that astound even jaded teens otherwise glued to their smartphones.
What originally was five acres now encompasses 152 acres of South Carolina countryside at the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest. It is home to 120 hawks, falcons, owls, eagles, kites and other birds of prey representing 50 species.
As with many facilities, the Center for Birds of Prey began as one person’s passion. Founder Jim Elliott says he was a student of birds all his life, but his profession for 20 years was as a commercial real estate broker. He eventually chose caring for birds over selling bricks and mortar.
The center welcomes about 15,000 visitors a year while still treating injured birds. The birds on display are permanent residents that cannot survive in the wild, and most that come here are short-termers.
“We still get gunshot eagles. We’re not going to change the world, but we can educate people,” Elliott said, adding that the center is the only permanent response center for oiled birds of its kind on the eastern seaboard.
In 2016, the center treated 400 birds of prey and 200 shorebirds, and as staffer Meghan Sparkman noted, the medical center’s underlying goal “is to get birds back into the wild.” Since its founding, the center has admitted more than 7,000 birds for treatment and release. Birds arrive after colliding with vehicles, striking power lines, getting coated with oil or being within range of a malicious human with a rifle.
Sparkman is an educator on the center’s staff of fewer than a dozen people. When I visited, she met me with a regal Harris’s hawk perched on her arm.
That’s the way visits begin – with an up-close-and-personal introduction to a beautiful bird of prey. You might meet an American kestrel, a red-tailed hawk, an Asian brown wood owl or a peregrine falcon.
After that introduction, you take a walk through campus-like grounds to view birds from around the world and to learn about the center’s work in rehabilitation, research and captive breeding. As Sparkman and I passed a cage with a barred owl, the owl “spoke” to Sparkman. It was a pick-up line.
“He was reared by humans and imprinted on humans. He identifies with humans and vocalizes to me because he sees me as a potential mate – as misguided as that might be,” Sparkman explained with a wry smile.
After the facility tour, you get the big show. For up to an hour, staffers display four to six species in fast-action flight demonstrations, some that include having a hawk pluck a piece of meat off the outstretched hand of a staffer. “Blink of an eye” becomes an understatement here.
The center also offers special activities such as nighttime owl programs, birding trips to see migratory birds and photography days.