Birds of prey have been feared, and their population threatened, since the mid-1800s. Improvements in firearms, an increasing human population, and a fear of the unknown converged to create a rise in bird killing. Today, people are much better educated about the necessity of birds of prey, also known as raptors, but there was a time when even the nation's symbol, a bald eagle, was killed in great numbers. Thanks to conservation movements across the country, including Awendaw's Center for Birds of Prey, hawks, eagles, falcons, osprey, owls, and vultures can enjoy relative safety in the skies. That is, until a human shoots or poisons them.
On a recent trip to the Center for Birds of Prey, I got the distinct sense that the birds — over 500 injured birds visit the center each year — run the show. Standing outside a peregrine falcon's cage, shivering in 40-degree weather and a light drizzling rain, Center Educator Natalie Grosser can't stop smiling. "They're the fastest animals in the world," she says, quickly listing the bird's other qualities, including a 200 mile per hour flight rate.
The birds at the center are used for educational purposes because they cannot survive in the wild. Grosser hoots at an owl and he hoots back. She explains that human imprinting has confused the bird's sense of what kind of animal Grosser may be. Despite the connection the educators have with some of the birds, they are quick to remind guests that birds of prey aren't good pets — that's why no bird at the center has a name.
Grosser walks us past owls, osprey, kite, and falcon species, all noble and purposeful in their own right. The American kestrel can detect UV light. Abdim's Stork represents good luck, signifying the coming of rain back in its Native Africa. Harris hawks are group hunters, known as the wolves of the sky. And then there are vultures.
We look out to the water lapping the shores of the center where about 10 turkey vultures line a viewing deck. They are large and, yes, they are creepy looking. The birds are not members of the center, they're just wild vultures hanging out. And it's in these stooped, black backs, that Grosser insists we find the center's most important residents.
Stephen Schabel, the center's director of education, elaborates on vultures' importance during the daily flight demonstration, where five birds of prey fly above the heads of spectators, landing deftly on the arms of bird educators.
But Schabel doesn't want the show to get in the way of the message. "From an ecological perspective, vultures are the most important birds at the center. If vultures disappeared, there'd be lots of other predators," he says. What predators exactly? Well, rats, for one. Stray dogs could pose a problem too.
Schabel mentions other countries where vulture populations have collapsed: According to a 2015 National Geographic article, Africa's eight vulture species have declined by 62 percent over the past 30 years, and India's vulture populations were depleted by 96 percent in the '90s. As a result, the population of scavenging dogs in India increased and so did diseases — according to the World Health Organization, of the world's 55,000 rabies deaths every year, 20,000 occur in India.
A livestock drug destroyed vultures' livers in India, and Africa's population has declined due to powerlines and anachronistic practices like witch doctors using vulture brains for various procedures. In America, vultures, and every other raptor, are dying from lead poisoning.
You don't have to look far to find the tragic effects of lead poisoning. Hell, there's currently a billboard on I-26 warning parents of lead poisoning in paint. And you can't turn the TV on without hearing about the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan's water supply. Lead makes up most of the bullets that hunters use and when they shoot an animal that they don't collect, scavengers ingest that lead. To get an idea of the prevalence of lead in birds, the Center for Birds of Prey's medical clinic says that in 2014, of the bald eagles admitted to the clinic, over 60 percent had some amount of lead in their system.
"The poisoning and the treatment is very painful," says Debbie Mauney, medical clinic director. You can tell that Mauney cares deeply about her winged patients, shaking her head when she says, "Paint's not the only lead that's out there." With a bachelor's degree in aerospace (yes) and a master's in biology, Mauney found her way to bird conservation by chance. Years ago she discovered an injured bird, took it to a conservation center, and began volunteering there.
Schabel's story is a little different. With degrees in education and environmental science, he is also an avid hunter. Perhaps more than anyone else, Schabel understands the impact of lead on birds of prey. Both he and Mauney agree that hunters are their target audience.
"We have to make them aware," says Mauney. "We have to give them the info." Schabel adds that it's difficult to convince hunters to use steel bullets because they're simply more expensive. "It's human nature to not do anything until you have to," he says.
"We aren't anti-hunting. Ideally, people will start to move away from lead. It's not gonna happen today, but we need to start talking today," he says.
"I don't care if people raise quail and kill them," continues Schabel. But he does care if people kill the hawks killing the quail, like the current federal case in Orangeburg, S.C., where a couple hunters allegedly did just that.
At the end of the day, Schabel says that his job is to put the clinic out of business. Mauney laughs and nods, because they both know the lead problem won't allow that to happen anytime soon. "These birds have something to share," says Schabel. "Don't we want to fix it?"