Unless you're everybody's favorite boy wizard Harry Potter or DC Comics superhero Doctor Mid-Nite, chances are your contact with birds of prey has been limited to watching vultures nom roadkill off of I-26. And although most of the hawks, eagles, kites, falcons, and owls at SEWE's annual flight demonstrations won't deliver your mail or protect you from supervillians and crime lords, they will showcase their impressive hunting and aerial skills around and above Marion Square. A group of high-flying performers will journey from their home at the Center for Birds of Prey to downtown Charleston, where they'll leap from their handlers hands and glide and dive above the heads of SEWE attendees (accessory dogs beware).
Having wild birds flying around the center of downtown Charleston may seem like an odd idea to some — and a chancy one at that — but Stephen Schabel, director of education at the Center for Birds of Prey, says that although the demonstrations can be tricky, the birds are more than prepared to deal with the challenges of city life. "We rehearse with the birds in Marion Square beforehand," Schabel says. "There are just so many different variables that come with bringing them downtown. Traffic on Calhoun Street, dogs in the park, wild birds perched on the Francis Marion. Fear is a big thing. People are scary to them." Last year, one falcon did go MIA, but all birds are fitted with a radio transmitter in case that happens. "We found her in a tree in Hampton Park about an hour later," Schabel says.
The Center for Birds of Prey is a 150-acre sanctuary located north of Charleston in Awendaw. Each year Birds of Prey staff bring anywhere from 10 to 15 local and exotic birds to their Marion Square demos. "About half of the birds have been bred in captivity," Schabel says, "but there are also birds that have been injured and can't return to the wild. We have a red-tailed hawk that was hit by a car, and she's blind in one eye."
Flight demonstrations usually last about 30-45 minutes, and in addition to viewing the birds' acrobatics, attendees will be educated about the Center's conservation efforts. "We want to show the birds' natural behaviors, but we want people to know why what we do is important," Schabel adds.