The current mystery at the Center for Birds of Prey’s medical and rehabilitation clinic centers on two red-tailed hawks. They were brought in recently after two neighbors found them on the ground, covered head to tail in mud. “We can’t even get to them to assess them yet,” clinic director Debbie Mauney says. “You can’t get through all that mud.” Right now, they’re waiting in separate pet carriers — the kind you’d use for a medium-sized dog — in a room, lined up with about six other similar carriers, all covered with towels to help keep them calm. Each contains a patient that Mauney hopes to be able to fix.

She lifts the towel that’s covering the carrier containing one of the muddy birds. He puffs up his feathers and raises his wings, trying to scare us off. Mud is absolutely everywhere, streaked along his head and wings, caked in his talons. Later, Mauney and her staff will clean them up so a vet can start figuring out what’s wrong with them.

This is a fairly extreme example of the kind of sleuthing required when working with injured wild animals, but the element of mystery is never absent — even if the injury itself is easy to pinpoint. “Some birds come in and there is an obvious problem like a fracture, but you don’t know what might have precipitated that injury,” Mauney says. “There may be something underlying, like a vision problem or something, so we do a full [diagnostic] panel.” They also do surgery, treat sicknesses and parasites, and put the patients who can be released through intense rehabilitation to ensure that they will be able to survive back in the wild. And they do this for more than 500 birds per year.

This work is not what the Center for Birds of Prey is best known for, publicly at least. Most of us know them for their educational outreach at places like the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, or from their visits to local schools. But as evidenced by its medical clinic, it has a much larger mission. You can see it plainly in their full name, which is the Avian Conservation Center and the Center for Birds of Prey. Those conservation programs are less visible but deeply important and include captive breeding, research, and field studies on bird populations in the Southeast. So while education is a central part of what they do, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

Jim Elliott, a former commercial real estate developer with a passion for birds of prey, founded the Center in 1991 as a kind of pet project. “I had a flexible schedule, and I was able to start what I thought was going to be a volunteer, singular project,” he says. “It grew a life of its own a few years later, and it got to the point where I had to make a choice between the real estate business and this, and I jumped.” Elliott now serves as the executive director, and the Center that he and his incredibly dedicated staff started more than 20 years ago now stretches over 152 acres in Awendaw. It serves as the permanent home for 150 birds of more than 50 species, contains one of only two stationary, permanent oiled bird treatment facilities on the entire East Coast, and has a volunteer staff that contributes more than 13,000 hours per year. Many of those volunteers help care for the resident birds, but some help clinic director Mauney in the medical clinic doing the tough work of rescue and rehabilitation.

Avian rescue is a difficult field. For one thing, birds are exceptionally sensitive to stress. “You can kill a wild bird just by stressing it and handling it improperly,” executive director Jim Elliott says. On top of that, until recently birds were not high on the list of animals veterinarians wanted to treat. When the Center was founded more than 20 years ago, it was difficult to find a vet who knew how to treat pet birds, let alone wild ones. “There wasn’t the level of professional care available to these wild birds,” Elliott says. “There were well-intentioned individuals doing what they could and patching up birds, but true veterinary care didn’t exist in South Carolina. So for whatever reason we thought we would take that on, and we have done that.”

And done it well. Of the 500 birds they see each year, Mauney says, many are hit by cars, but others come in with gunshot wounds or injuries from traps. The common denominator is usually humans. “99 percent of the birds that come through are here because of something we imposed on them,” Elliott says. “Automobiles or gunshots, glass walls that we built or architectural monuments that the birds fly into. We’ve got a hand in it, so maybe there’s a moral responsibility to try to offset that a bit. We certainly think there is.”

In addition to that moral responsibility, there’s also scientific value to treating, studying, and releasing these birds. As predators, birds of prey are an indicator species — if they’re doing well, then everything underneath them on the food chain is also doing well. “How that population is doing overall is really reflective of how this ecosystem of ours is faring. So the indication and insight these birds give us, the birds that come through the door and in our hands every year, it’s tremendously valuable,” Elliott says.

Recently, the Center partnered with SEWE and the Lowcountry Open Land Trust to form the Lowcountry Conservation Initiative, which was funded with a grant from the BP Foundation. The grant will support educational outreach, open land conservation, and the medical treatment of birds, while also allowing the three organizations to work more closely together. “We work in parallel all the time, but this is an opportunity to work more effectively,” says Elliott. “Combining some of the expertise and experience and resources is just going to make [our work] more effective — exponentially, I think.”

And as for those two muddy red-tailed hawks, they’re doing quite well, though what put them on the ground in that condition is still unknown. Elliott and the clinic staff are hopeful they’ll make a full recovery, and be back in the skies where they belong before too long.

If you see an injured bird, call the Center for Birds of Prey immediately at (843) 971-7474 to report it. A quick response may save the bird’s life.

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