Center for Birds of Prey

November 2019

Center for Birds of Prey – Charleston, South Carolina

Center for Birds of Prey was not something I found widely advertised as an activity around Charleston. Ever since Galapagos, Kevin has an appreciation and distinct interest in birds, so when I found this I knew it would be a nice treat. We really did not know what to expect here but when we arrived, I could not believe this was not a more talked about destination for people visiting Charleston. 

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South Carolina Center for Birds of Prey, previously known as the Charleston Raptor Center, is the avian conservation center of South Carolina. Along with the Avian Medical Center and the South Carolina Oil Spill Treatment Facility, these three facilities provide rehabilitation services for birds and service as a resource for education. 

We booked a tour time of 1030AM which included a guided walking tour and a flight demonstration. Arriving just in time, we met up with the group and one of the Center’s educators to start our morning. And just that quick we encountered our first bird – an owl just chilling – just look at the size of it!

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After introductions, it was evident we were the only ones from outside of South Carolina. The grounds were stunning as we began walking towards some of the enclosures. We learned about the different ways these birds end up at the facility and the healing journey. The goal is to release the birds back into the wild but those that cannot regain strength or mobility stay at the Center.

There are over 50 different species of eagles, falcons, hawks, owls, vultures and other birds of prey from all over the world. The first bird we were introduced to was none other than the bald eagle.

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I know it is hard to tell from the photo but these eagles were enormous. Two sat in the enclosure as we got a close up view of the details that define a bird of prey, even giving us the treat of hearing the bald eagle’s call.

From here we moved onto the vultures, often stigmatized for scavenging, where I definitely learned the most about these birds.

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  • Vultures are “nature’s clean up crew” not just for carcasess but also disease. Did you know that vultures are immune to diseases like rabies and tuberculosis – their stomachs are very acidic with strong enzymes that do more than just digest but prevent the spread of these diseases.
  • Why are vulture heads bald? Cause when their heads are completely inside a carcass snacking away, this prevents dirty feathers that would be impossible to clean. Bald is beautiful and in this case, clean.
  • And how about those white legs? For starters, they are not actually white. What makes them this color is dried uric acid from “#1” and “#2” – yummy, I know. However, this serves a few critical functions – natural sun protectant, helps regulate body temperature, kills off any bacteria or toxins. May not be pretty, but it sure is practical.
  • Their eye sight is poor – an uncharacteristic feature of birds of prey. But who needs that to spot a rotten carcass? A good nose will do the trick – vultures have a great sense of smell.

So next time you see a vulture, thank them for their service in ridding the world of disease!

The rest of our hour we observed many different types of hawks, eagles, and falcons. We learned so much just in this hour and this alone would have been worth the price of admission and the drive out here. But we still had the second act!

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We were led to an outdoor set of bleachers where the flight demonstration would take place. The difference between what we expected to what we observed was quite large.

After a brief orientation, an Asian Brown Wood Owl soared inches above our heads to a perch. We were just amazed! The first during this segment are all “off leash” per say but can fly freely. They have been working with the trainers with the reward of food (often raw beef) to demonstrate natural flying and hunting techniques. The owl continued to swoop between perches, in between the bleachers, gliding the ease. Such a beautiful bird!

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The next demonstration was actually a pair of hawks – Harris Hawks. What makes these birds so interesting is that the hunt in a cooperative group which is very uncommon for the raptors.

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After flying between the perches, the trainers showed how the birds would hunt a rabbit by pulling a “rabbit” on the ground. The birds swooped in from the side and tackled the “rabbit” on the ground – so amazing! We had no idea birds could do such an maneuver.

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We were excited to see what was up next – the falcon! Soaring high in the air, the falcons are known for their speed and accuracy. The demonstration this time had the trainer for a rope, swinging it around with a piece of meat on the end – like a “bird in flight”. The falcon would climb higher and higher before diving down, predicting where the “bird in flight” would be in order to grab the meat. It was hard to decide who to cheer for – the bird or the trainer – not sure who is on the winning side.

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The final demonstration was a falcon or hawk local to South Carolina and I am so bummed I cannot recall the name of this bird (begins with “yellow” if that is helpful but I could not find it!). The trainer would throw a piece of meat in the air as the bird would catch it with its talons – showcasing a wildly accurate hunting technique.

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How do they keep the birds from flying off? Well, they don’t. The birds go through lots of training before they can participate in the demonstrations. They are never forced to participate – the birds are free to do what they want but the trainers always keep the incentive in the birds favor – lots of food. There are also bells for an audible cue and a GPS tracker on them in the event one decides to leave the show early.

After the demonstration, our admission allowed us access to the grounds to see the rest of the Center – there is so much to see! We started by going to the Owl Wood where owls from all over the world can be seen (and heard!).

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Then we started on the walking path around the grounds, some overlapping with the first portion of the day. It was hard to stop taking pictures of these amazing birds.

Needless to say, we had such an incredible day at Center for Birds of Prey. I really found it baffling that this is not a more highly advertised as a “thing to do when visiting Charleston” – and not so much by the Center itself but from other travelers, locals, etc. It is easy to spend a few hours to all day here. I cannot recommend this enough on your visit to Charleston, regardless of your bird interest – you will absolutely walk away amazed. I know we will definitely return on our next trip to Charleston!

Read about the rest of Charleston here!

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