High Flying

By Helen Mitternight

We’ve all heard of the canary in the coal mine – the sad little bird whose death warned miners to get the heck out and away from fatal fumes. Large raptors play a similar role in our environment as a whole, something that Audrey Poplin Ray finds fascinating.

As husbandry coordinator and educator, Audrey oversees the care and management of the 120 resident birds at The Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, works with volunteers and trains the birds for their free flights such as the kind you’ll see this month at Marion Square during the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.

It takes more than a strong arm to send these magnificent birds aloft – it takes training and patience and a willingness to handle small dead things.

The center identifies and addresses environmental issues through education, avian medicine, research and response. The birds at the center either have been bred into captivity, or have been injured and are unable to be released again into the wild.

Audrey has a degree in biology from College of Charleston, and after a start as a volunteer at the center in 2008, has been on staff since 2010. Along with the other staff members, Audrey works with the birds – hawks, falcons, vultures, owls and others – using positive reinforcement to train the birds.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Audrey says. “We ask them to do mostly natural behaviors, other than being around people, which is the biggest unnatural thing. We are a large predator, so a lot of our training is getting them to be comfortable around us. And then the rest is natural behaviors, getting them to fly from point A to point B, to soar or to chase a rabbit lure. First you ask them to trust you and then you ask them to do something they are capable of doing. But you have to be careful. They are wild animals.”

Sometimes, Audrey says, the wild birds react to stressful situations such as the SEWE crowds of 10,000 or more, by taking what she calls “unauthorized field trips,” refusing to come down.

One temptation to get them to return is the aforementioned dead animals. The center buys rats, mice, quail, chicks and even fish from a professional company three times a year and stores them in a big walk-in freezer. Volunteers back at the shelter defrost daily portions for the birds of prey, even filleting the rodents because they know the birds won’t eat the innards and no one wants to clean that stuff up later. And while you or I may hesitate to handle a dead mouse, the birds consider it a tasty enough treat to lure them back to their handlers.

But sometimes even the treat is insufficient to persuade them to return to Audrey’s outstretched arm. The birds are equipped with radio transmitters and many wear bells to help handlers keep track of them. Audrey says they haven’t lost one at SEWE yet.

“Might take us a few hours, but we’ve recovered all the birds,” she says.  

And, while seeing large, predatory birds swooping above your head may be discomfiting, Audrey says humans pose a greater threat to birds  than the birds do to humans.

“We are doing all sorts of things that cause problems for birds,” she says. “We started out as a hospital and most of the injuries we saw were human-related: birds getting tangled in fishing line, getting shot, getting hit by cars.”

Despite human threats to the birds of prey, they continue to provide an important service to humans, besides being just spectacular to look at. Back to the canary in the coal mine. Audrey says that these birds are so sensitive to changes in our environment that they can be the first indicators of a problem. That’s what happened back in the 1950s when the pesticide DDT was sprayed as a matter of course. The birds’ population began to decline when they started laying eggs with shells so thin that the birds would crush the eggs trying to incubate them. It wasn’t long before someone realized that DDT probably wasn’t good for humans, either.

Early warning aside, these birds are simply magnificent in their own right.

“Their eyes are so intense,” Audrey says. “It seems like they are staring right into your soul.”


How You Can Help

  • Slow down and take notice. If you see large birds at the side of the road, slow down so you don’t hit them.
  • Collect your broken fishing line and don’t litter. Litter is likely to attract roadside critters who get hit by cars and the roadkill in turn attracts birds of prey who also get struck by cars.
  • Don’t use rat poison. Audrey says owls that eat poisoned rats can be poisoned themselves.
  • Visit the Center for Birds of Prey website to donate, learn about events or volunteer.
  • For more information, visit thecenterforbirdsofprey.org.