Sandlapper Society

Raptor Refuge

Article & photos by Jason A. Zwiker

Awendaw center protects some of South Carolina’s most magnificent natural resources


Like many children who grew up decades ago, playing in the woods and marshes of James Island, Jim Elliott wanted a Red Ryder BB Gun. When he finally had the gun in his hands, at age 8, he went outside, pumped the lever, aimed the barrel toward a red-bellied woodpecker, and pulled the trigger. The shot killed the bird and Elliott, shocked, approached the fallen body. He cupped the bird in his hands and stared, as much in awe of the intricacy and beauty of the barred back and bright red cap as by the fact that his actions had taken the life from it.

Though many decades have passed, he still credits that moment as putting him on the path to the Avian Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) organization dedicated to identifying and addressing environmental issues affecting birds.

 “Every bird that comes through the door of our treatment facility has a story,” says Elliott, the center’s executive director. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time the story of how that bird became injured is human related. There was something we subjected it to, whether that was a loss of or change in habitat, a toxin in the environment, or a gunshot. Birds are one of the best indicators we have for understanding the overall health of an ecosystem.”

The Avian Conservation Center, which consists of both the Medical and Oiled Bird Treatment Facility and the Center for Birds of Prey, is the culmination of decades of work by Elliott and those who share his vision of environmental awareness. Though the center has been performing its core functions of research, education, and treatment for injured birds for many years, it has only recently been open to the public for tours, flight demonstrations, and education on a regular basis.

What Elliott has learned since it opened is that there’s a tremendous interest in learning how to protect eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, and other birds. “People find birds compelling,” he says. “People want to know more about the threats these birds face and they want to learn more about what they can do to help.”

Its Awendaw location is ideal: Reasonably close to Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, and McClellanville, it’s perfect for day trippers. Surrounded by the lush greenery of the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge and Francis Marion National Forest, it’s a place where these magnificent birds enjoy natural surroundings and open skies.

At any given time, approximately 200 birds reside here. About half are permanent residents and the rest are cared for in the medical facility. Veterinarians specializing in internal medicine, orthopedics, and ophthalmology oversee the care of the birds that come through the clinic. Direct trauma, usually resulting from human actions or negligence, is one of the primary reasons birds need care. Shock or emaciation, often due to changes in habitat, is another.

The goal is to return the injured bird to the wild, which isn’t always possible. In these cases, a healthy, nurturing environment is provided for the permanent residents. “If we ask birds to remain here, we have to be sure it is for a justified purpose,” Elliott explains. “It may be for education, research, or because the bird can’t be sufficiently rehabilitated to return to the wild, but in any case, we don’t warehouse birds simply for the sake of having them.”

Along with walking tours and flight demonstrations, the center offers seminars and paths along wetlands, woods and open fields. “Owl Evenings” let visitors experience birds’ nocturnal habits.

Responding to an oil spill is one of the center’s most essential purposes. The Oiled Bird Response facility is the only one of its kind on the East Coast. Besides providing education to prevent such emergencies, it prepares staff and volunteers to rapidly respond, to reduce the harm to bird populations and their habitats, if it occurs.

The plan in place for such an event is state-of-the-art, but it’s one Elliott hopes never to use. “The impact of a spill here would be comparable to that of a major hurricane, except that the environmental and economic repercussions would last much longer,” he says. “Our marshes are the incubators for the Atlantic Ocean. People want to live and visit here specifically because our beaches are pristine. The consequences of an oil spill in this area would be severe.”

For Elliott, the key is to help people understand and respect the connections among birds, ourselves, and the world we share. Research and field studies at the center often utilize “citizen scientists” for exactly this reason: People become better informed and more empowered to make wise decisions about wildlife conservation when they are actively involved.

Elliott is heartened by the visitors’ great interest. While he acknowledges there are many benefits to the technology that saturates the lives of children these days, he also mourns the days of “dirty hands and wet feet,” when connection to the earth was immediate and visceral, not philosophical.

“Today’s young people are the ones who are going to be making the decisions about how we build our cities and how we interact with nature in the next 50 years,” he observes. “Without a history of real hands-on interaction with nature, are they going to be able to put those decisions in context?” 

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The Center for Birds of Prey and Avian Conservation Center is at 4872 Seewee Road, Awendaw. Hours are Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Cost is $12 for adults, $10 for youth and free for children younger than 6. Call 843.971.7474 or visit thecenterforbirdsofprey.org.

Jason A. Zwiker’s photos of Johns Island historian Elizabeth Stringfellow appeared in the Spring 2009 issue. He lives in Charleston.