On Alert: Birds of Prey

Birds. We see them flapping about everyday in every sky we look up at. We eat them, we photograph them, and we watch them relentlessly. But most of us have no knowledge of birds or how they impact our own lives.

Recently I took a trip to The Center for Birds of Prey outside Charleston, South Carolina and got schooled on all sorts of amazing fowl. After learning more about their eagles, falcons, vultures, hawks and owls, I had a private tour of their bird hospital and their oil spill rescue area (yet to be used, but sadly we know the day will come. And yes, they use Dawn!). A highlight was their Owl Wood area where I saw more owls than I knew existed.

I learned that most people have no idea how to help an injured bird, and oftentimes cause more harm than good. I decided to speak to the Director of Education, Stephen Schabel to learn more about what we can do to help instead of hinder our bird populations around the country.

What is your background?

Essentially I have always loved birds and being outside. I started as a biology major then got my degree in education but didn’t want to teach in the usual way. I then got my masters in Environmental Policy and came here in 2003. Here at the center we take science to normal people and help them use that information in the way we behave, construct policy, and vote. Turns out I really love working with these animals. I never thought ‘Zookeeper’ would be part of my job! It’s awesome and has a good mission behind it and it resonates with a lot of people.

Why should we pay attention to birds?

That is one of the topics most discussed here. What we know is that birds are an indicator out there.


  • Lead toxicity is a big one. I thought lead was gone after lead paint and lead gas. And how many people hunting know they are putting animals and themselves in danger by using lead bullets?
  • We looked at tissue samples of a variety of dead birds and we saw mercury from the fish eaters and the DDT is still out there but what we found in all the birds was pharmaceuticals. They are eating things we throw away. We are eating the same fish the birds are so you have to wonder.

It is kind of like the canary in the coal mine. Birds are very sensitive to things and they are going to die first if there is a problem. If we pay close attention to them we can use that to better our own lives.

If I see a hurt or abandoned bird what do I do?

Stay out of the situation! Most orphan situations don’t have to be. Things were going perfectly well until a human tried to help. If people find an owl chick on the ground they often rush to save it. What they should do is step back because their mom and dad are probably right there to help them.

Ask yourself, “Did I cause this problem or is this a natural occurrence?”

Sometimes peoples’ efforts at helping just make it worse.

We get calls from people all over the nation who have found a hurt or (possibly) abandoned bird. The reality is, our scope is primarily South Carolina. There are bird centers in every state so if we get the call we can direct people to a center near them. The first step is literally, take two steps back. If you aren’t sure you are doing the right thing then don’t do it.

If you do need to handle the bird, throw a towel over it and wear gloves so you won’t get harmed either. Then put it in a box and get it to help as soon as you can. 

What if I see a bird hit by a car?

If someone finds a hurt bird that has been hit by a car or tangled in a net, be aware that humans caused it so there is probably something you can do about it.

One big thing people who really care can do is to move dead animals away from the road. Many birds and animals get hurt from eating dead animals on the side of the road. Here at the center the state patrol brings us road kill all the time that we dump in a certain area and our local bird population comes in for the feast in a safe environment.

How can you tell if a bird has lead poisoning?

There are obvious things – you see bird get shot, you see blood on the bird, you see the wing hanging. If you see a Bald Eagle in your yard and he isn’t running away when he should, there is probably something wrong. That could be from lead poisoning since lead can often times cause neurological issues. If a bird is normal and healthy it will fly away 99% of the time.

Every Bald Eagle that comes in we check for lead poisoning. We are very fortunate to have the equipment to do this. Most scavengers are eating dead animals and because some humans still want to use lead bullets, the scavengers get lead poisoning. They have to ingest lead to be harmed.

So hunters should stop using lead bullets?

Yes! I am a hunter and I know there are plenty of alternatives. California banned lead ammunition because of the California Condor. If the rest of the country followed we would have a lot fewer bird issues.

Visit The Center for Birds of Prey’s website to support their cause and learn more about how to help an injured bird.

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