Humans have always been fascinated with flight, says Stephen Schabel, and that’s why the educational director of the International Birds of Prey Center thinks birds are intriguing to those who love them. He says he’s always been a bird fan. Birds even hit on him while he’s at work.
“You don’t have to go someplace special to watch birds,” he says. Look out the window. Colorful birds are everywhere: swooping around, singing their songs, building nests, pollinating flowers, eating. There are over 9,000 species of birds out there.
Schabel works with raptors, the predators of the bird world.
To get to where he works, you have to drive north on Highway 17, past the minimalls and minivans of Mount Pleasant, and turn down a dirt road that leads to the 152-acre International Birds of Prey Center.
The land was donated by local attorney Joseph Rice in 2002, and it’s tucked away in a conservation neighborhood, surrounded by Francis Marion National Forest and the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
At the IBPC, Schabel’s main mission is to educate the public about environmental issues concerning birds of prey and to research conservation and protection methods. The center also provides a medical clinic for these birds.
Over the course of a normal year IBPC sees 350-400 birds come through their door. These birds arrive at the center injured or orphaned, usually at the fault of humans. When trees are cut down to develop land, bird often lose their homes in the shuffle. When someone throws an apple core out the car window, the mice follow their noses to the road, and the owl follows its source of food to these busy by-ways. Accidents happen.
The center treats injured hawks, owls, eagles, ospreys, and other raptors. Schabel says the main objective is to get the birds back in the wild.
Only half the birds that come through the clinic are ever released into the natural world again. The rest die from severe injuries or get put under if there’s no course of treatment.
Schabel says the center wasn’t solving the bigger problem of having to treat so many injured birds, so they sought to educate the public about the ramifications of their everyday actions. He wants cities to make conscious decisions when developing land. He wants people to realize that even biodegradable litter is damaging to nature and to think beyond their local boundaries. The birds that inhabit South Carolina know no state or international lines. They migrate. Mindless human activities in one region can affect the world. He wants people to realize the impact they have on the circle of life.
“It’s a scary thought to think of what would happen if we didn’t have birds,” he says. The balance of the ecosystem would be thrown off.
Birds are great indicators of environmental health. By watching what’s happening to birds, a lot can be inferred about what’s happening to the earth’s dynamic and what could happen to humans, he says. The center also conducts research regarding this notion.
For a city like Charleston, Schabel says bird watching is huge. Ecotourism brings in a lot of money for the state.
IBPC annually hosts over 150 off-site programs for kids and adults who need and want to grasp the importance of bird conservation.
The center is still in its construction phase, but eventually they want to open the gates to the public. Visits are currently by appointment only.
As of now, the medical clinic is only 1,200 square feet and is located on executive director Jim Elliot’s private property in Awendaw, miles from the clinic.
“We outgrew it a long time ago,” Schabel says about the clinic that was established in 1991.
Come June, when the center expects to open its new 7,000 square-foot avian medical center/oiled bird treatment facility on the same grounds as the education and research site, IBPC will be able to admit up to 1,000 birds a year for treatment. It will also be the first oil spill recovery site on the East Coast.
The state-of-the-art medical building is funded by private donations and a $1.8 million grant from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The grant money was the result of a mitigation lawsuit following an oil spill near Georgetown, Schabel says.
Training for volunteers starts next month in case another Exxon Valdez-type catastrophe should happen on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Compared to the current “bird hospital,” the new medical facility is an oasis, with a patient holding area that will house birds in kennels, a diagnostic lab, treatment rooms, a surgical suite, and an X-ray facility. More importantly, there will be two separate kitchens: one for bird food like fish, meat, and mice, and another for human food. Schabel is excited about not having to store his bag lunch in the same space as varmints.
A medical enclosure will provide an area for birds who need space to exercise once a week to rebuild the muscle mass they lost during their kennel stay. A flight enclosure with perches at 50- and 100-foot intervals will be on site, too, for more extensive physical training purposes.
The medical center keeps some of the birds that come through for educational purposes. Hawks, owls, falcons, and eagles — essentially people-birds — that were bred in captivity are used to show the natural behaviors of raptors in a fairly unnatural context.
Ordinarily, Schabel says, these birds of prey should be wary of humans. The birds the center keeps and shows to the public are different from their peers — they were raised by humans.
Young birds learn who they are by who feeds them. The meal provider becomes the example of whom to love and who is their competitor, which is why Schabel says humans should never feed wild birds. For whatever reason, baby birds are imprinted easily. Many birds they keep were hand-fed by humans during the initial, essential character building phase of a bird’s life.
When medical volunteers nurse orphaned baby birds, they camouflage themselves with netting and feed the bird what it would normally eat, while holding up a stuffed animal that closely represents their species. They want the bird to know it’s a bird. Schabel says orphan season is nearing; spring is the busiest time of year for the center.
His job involves a lot of physical labor and long hours, but he likes what he does.
“I could’ve worked in a bank,” he says. Instead he wears jeans and boots to work, drives around a black golf cart from one display aviary to another, and gets to build relationships with what would otherwise be wild animals.
He hates that vultures are sometimes viewed as gross creatures. They’re so much more than birds that eat dead stuff. They’re clean, intelligent, social birds, he says. Two of his favorite birds housed at IBPC are a pair of black vultures whose parents were killed by a dog. A few aviaries away sits an eagle owl who puffs out his chest at Schabel and rummages around his nest, showing off his manliness and home-building skills. Like a human taking a prospective life-partner on a date, this owl is showing Schabel he can provide a good, hearty life.
“This is what I have, love me,” says Schabel of the owl’s message. Some birds will show off for their trainers by bringing them half a rat from dinner the night before.
There’s a lot to be learned about life from birds, Kristin Gordon says. She’s been working at the center for over a year now, and she loves that every day is a different learning experience. She’s one of the 10 or so employees at the center. Over 150 volunteers donate their time to IBPC as well.
Schabel’s dad always told him to leave the world a better place than he found it, and he likes to think he’s doing his part, one bird at a time. »» Lindsay Sainlar
What to do if you stumble across an injured bird of prey:
1. Don’t panic.
2. Don’t feed the bird or give it water. A bird’s digestive system may not be able to process the food or water.
3. Grab a pair of thick gloves and approach the bird from the front to pick it up carefully. Make sure to grasp the bird on its sides over properly folded wings. Throwing a towel over the bird could make the process go more smoothly.
4. Place the bird in a ventilated box and move it to a quiet, warm, dark place and run to the phone to call a local veterinarian or IBPC (928-3494).
5. Sit tight. One of the hundreds of authorized bird transporters in the state will be by to pick up the bird shortly.
What to do if You find an orphaned baby bird:
1. Before following the aforementioned rules, look for a nearby nest. Contrary to hamsters, parents of baby birds do not have a keen sense of smell and will not abandon their offspring after human contact. If there is a nest, return the bird, and have a good day.