Raptor center offers feast for vultures
AWENDAW — Pete McKellar is in the kitchen prepping the menu. He pulls a half-thawed rat from the bucket, clips open its entrails with scissors and squeezes out the entree.
Eats at a vulture restaurant aren’t for the queasy.
For Saturdays this month, the Center for Birds of Prey has opened to public viewing a somewhat less-than-elegant avian dining experience. McKellar is a volunteer at the center.
Vulture Restaurant lies in a side field on the center’s Awendaw property, where staff members take the parts of rats, mice, chicks, fish and quail that its rehabilitating and display raptors won’t eat.
That’s stuff like the entrails, leftovers from the cage foods and roadkill brought by animal control or another public agency.
By the 10 a.m. serving, turkey vultures and black vultures line the trees waiting.
The dining isn’t fine. The birds descend like, eh, well, you get the idea. A white-tailed deer brought in last year was gone in little more than an hour. When a goat was put out a few days ago, more than 30 vultures took it apart.
Bucketfuls like McKellar prepped won’t last 20 minutes.
Vulture “restaurants” began opening about five years ago in Africa and Asia, where the species are in serious jeopardy.
The idea is to feed the birds something safe, somewhere safe, to forestall a collapse of the species.
In Asia, the decline has been scary: Only about 10 percent of the birds remain from flocks 15 years ago, said Stephen Schabel, the center’s education director.
In Asia, the culprit is an anti-inflammatory drug used for cattle and sheep that kills some vulture species. In Africa, it’s poisoned carcasses set out to kill large wild cats or other threats to villages.
In the United States, where most vulture species are pretty widespread, there’s less threat. But poisons such as those found in landfills still kill them.
So do cars, when there’s road kill around.
In fact, one of the aims of the center’s restaurant is to try to keep at least some vultures off the road.
The restaurant also gives the center an eco-friendly way to dispose of wastes from a tractor-trailer load of rodents and other food delivered four times per year.
The food prep is done by scissors and hand. A meat cleaver lying nearby is for chopping off rat tails: Even vultures won’t eat rat tails.
The “restaurant” provides a singular opportunity to teach people about the value of species widely derided as “buzzards,” and the threats to the birds worldwide.
“Mostly, it’s an education tool for us,” Schabel said. “It’d be great to see a societal change where every community has a vulture restaurant to get rid of roadkill.”
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