Photos courtesy SEWE

Jim Elliot, founder and executive director of the Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw, has an anecdote he likes to use when describing the work his organization performs.

Several years ago, the center began testing the blood of birds who were admitted to its medical clinic for care. Because a good number of these birds were vultures, often injured through interactions with humans — stricken by vehicles, colliding with man-made objects, or even poisoned — Elliot and his coworkers wanted to check for any potential environmental health issues.

What the center found was significantly elevated levels of lead in the birds’ blood, an indication to Elliot that the element was building up to potentially harmful levels in the soil, vegetation and water in the vultures’ habitat.

The research, however, was only half the equation. The center also used its resident vultures as an educational tool, demonstrating the importance of the birds as an indicator of overall ecosystem health, as well as attempting to dispel the myths and negative connotations commonly associated with the carrion feeders, also called “Charleston eagles” in the 1800s.

“Those are meaningful shifts,” Elliot said. “Those little victories that we’re able to mark along the way keep us from being discouraged about it all.”

Courtesy SEWE

In the perfect spot

A Charleston native, Elliot said he’s been a student of birds his entire life. In 1991, he pivoted from a career in commercial real estate to found what was then called the Charleston Raptor Center. Over the years, the center has grown and now operates as an umbrella nonprofit overseeing three divisions: the Center for Birds of Prey, the Avian Medical Center, and the South Carolina Oil Spill Treatment Facility. The center is open to the public for tours, flight demonstrations and educational opportunities. It hosts roughly 120 different bird species from around the world.

The backdrop for the center is the South Carolina coastline and surrounding natural areas such as the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge, which sits smack in the middle of a bird migration track. It’s the perfect place for working with birds, Elliot said.

“We have a temperate climate and being on the coast gives us an amazing array of bird life,” he said. “That sort of undisturbed landscape just gets in your blood. The natural attributes of this area are just so darn appealing.”

But these habitats are shrinking, and with them bird populations. According to a recent study, the U.S. and Canada have lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. 

“We’re headed in the wrong direction, but hopefully we can do some things to correct that trend,” Elliot told the City Paper. “Humans are literally competing with other creatures for the same space. How we do that and how sensitive we are to it and what we’re willing to do to accommodate (them) is what we’re hoping to be able to influence.”

A growing impact

The center’s impact has grown over the years thanks in part to its partnership with the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, a relationship that Elliot describes as “symbiotic.”

“Our visibility is enhanced so much by being there and being able to interact with that many people from that wide of an area in a short period of time,” he said. “It’s a relationship that we value and appreciate.”

This type of exposure is critical for an organization that thrives on donations, interest and volunteer work, he added.

“The more folks we can reach and the more our message is heard, it’s all we can do,” Elliot said. “The alternative is to do nothing, but that’s not acceptable. We’re not going to save the world, but we’re going to do what we can as well as we can and hopefully we’ll have a little impact.”

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