Market Street was once home to an unlikely feathered friend


James E. Taylor/Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (1866)/courtesy CCPL

Cleanup Crew

The markets of downtown Charleston were once the hub of commerce and community in this corner of 18th century Carolina. Between vendors plying their wares, fish and meat purveyors were commonplace, as were the dogs that lingered for a few scraps. The banishment of canines in 1799 due to rabies and the opening of a beef market a few blocks from the water in 1807 would attract a brand new flock of freeloaders.

Despite the animals being slaughtered outside of town, butchers still cut meat for customers at markets downtown, leaving them with leftovers that had nowhere to go. Nowhere that is, but up.

"Waste and leftovers were inevitable," Charleston County Public Library historian Nic Butler writes on his Charleston Time Machine website, the go-to resource for deep dives into offbeat chapters in Charleston's past. "But, without dogs to snap up the scraps, and without the conveniences of modern garbage collection, how could the city keep the market clean? Enter the black vulture."

Charleston eagles, as they were known, became the janitors of historic Charleston's Market Street. Sadly, the important role they played in keeping the streets clean and free of carrion has been largely forgotten.

That's where Butler and his Time Machine website and podcast come in. While researching the history of the city's market, Butler started seeing the vultures mentioned, and as he pulled that thread, he found it was much longer than he first thought.

"The vultures were here before the people, and the people came here and basically mistreated and ignored much of the wildlife," Butler says. "But then, the people at some point in the 18th century realized there was a valuable symbiotic relationship between the community of people and the community of vultures. Instead of chasing them off, they said, 'Well, let's make use of them and their natural inclinations.'"

Learning as much about the birds as he could, Butler published a two-part story documenting the rise and fall of Charleston's "urban vultures" in July 2017.

This week, Butler is plucking that information from the Time Machine for the spotlight for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (Sat., 11 a.m. at 68 Calhoun St.).

"We are literally just across the street from the Gaillard," the hub of SEWE scuttle, Butler says. "And, we've got meeting space and programs going on all the time, and we've got me, the in-house historian. It seemed like a natural opportunity to establish a partnership, and I look forward to continuing it and even expanding it in the future."

Butler's program shares its topic with his previous articles, but it will be different from how he's shared the information in the past.

"I'm not just going to read the text of the article," he promises. "I'm going to use a bird-friendly phrase and wing it. I'm going to have more images and talk more about the context. Where were they found, and how many were there? How would they move from one part of the city to another?"

There were a lot of questions Butler wanted to answer with this program, including, "Where are they now?" As most market-goers have probably noticed, there aren't flocks of these feathered friends hanging around anymore.

"Frankly, the city leaders, including the mayor, were just embarrassed that visitors from 'modern cities' were coming and seeing this third-world cleanup crew and thinking, 'Wow, Charleston certainly is behind the times,' " Butler explains.

"It wasn't necessarily that the vultures by themselves were bad. The vultures were only there because the butchers were cutting stuff up and throwing it on the ground and expecting the vultures to pick it up. By saying to the butchers, 'You can't just throw that down,' the city got rid of the vultures."

Or so people thought. As Butler puts it, the vultures were only ever acting on their instincts, and the city was leveraging that to its advantage. The birds were hungry, and the butchers provided an easy meal. When the butchers stopped providing, the vultures went elsewhere, but not too far.

"It's pretty rare to see them in downtown Charleston today," Butler says. "But, you get off the busy streets, and you're likely to see a vulture or two on the side of the road. It's not that uncommon to see 10 or 20 vultures gathered together with some roadkill just outside of the suburbs of our community."

The session, he says, is his opportunity to not only share the information he has found, but also the pictures he has of the vultures both past and present.

"History is something the library is committed to doing," Butler says. "I'm bringing all facets of local history to the public whether it's animal history or food history, so I look forward to the challenge of coming up with more materials that would be fun and interesting for the people of Charleston and the visitors for SEWE."

To keep up with Butler's latest historical dives, keep tabs on the library calendar and subscribe to the Charleston Time Machine newsletter and podcast.

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