They were taught to put on a show at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, but the pair of Harris hawks that performed in the birds of prey demonstration Friday showed their independence.
When they were released from the top of the nearby Embassy Suites, one swooped down and perched near trainers in Marion Square.
The other took its time, first landing on a hotel turret, then on a speaker through which a narrator's voice was amplified. That's where it released some droppings that landed on the blue jeans of Jessica Hendrix, who was visiting from Virginia.
But for Hendrix, 37, the soiled pant leg just showed how intimate the stars of the flight demonstration can get with spectators like her.
"I think I'm the lucky person here. He chose me," she said. "I got a little souvenir."
The display gives people a free opportunity to get up close and personal with captive birds of prey as they snag food out of the air and occasionally interact with the creatures that call Marion Square home. In addition to the two Friday, three more installments of the show - two Saturday and one Sunday - are scheduled for SEWE weekend.
It takes place in a fenced-in area of the square, where the birds fly to whatever perch their trainers point at. But most of the critters - aside from the skittish owl hooked to a leash - have free rein of the skies above.
The crew from The Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw sometimes must go with the flow of the natural habitat in which the show unfolds.
During their practice run Thursday, a Cooper's hawk that lives in the area swooped down at one of the captive falcons. The hawk was interested in the falcon's food: two mallard ducklings and a small slab of beef.
After a brief standoff, the wild hawk retreated to a nearby tree. The falcon wasn't hurt, and it held on to its meal. No harm, no fowl.
During the first demonstration Friday, trainer Audrey Poplin swung some dead birds on a rope above her head. The falcon dived in and grabbed the bait to oohs, ahs and claps from the crowd.
A red-tailed hawk and some vultures circled overhead, watching the feast below, but the wild creatures kept their distance this time.
Taking every precaution, though, the falcon stood over its meal with its wings outstretched to shield it from the competitors' view.
By the end of the weekend, the birds will put on some extra weight from the frequent treats.
"But we give them fresh food to keep them healthy," Poplin said. "Those birds are our teammates, our co-workers. We owe it to them."
Spectators saw a black vulture that was kidnapped by humans as a chick and hand-fed. As a result, it now depends on people for handout meals.
The vulture was the most disciplined bird in the show. It flew from perch to perch on command and walked into kennel like a dog in hopes of getting a treat.
Spectators also watched a Eurasian eagle owl swivel its head 360 degrees and look at the college-age students behind it. Stephen Schabel, who narrated the action, said that ability gives the owl peace of mind that it's not the one being preyed on.
"University kids are scary, aren't they?" Schabel told the crowd.
But the star was a yellow-billed kite, which was billed as the most masterful flier of the five species in the show.
Poplin threw pieces of beef shank into the air, and the kite snatched them with its talons and wolfed them down. One of the treats bounced off the bird, but the kite snagged it on the rebound.
It didn't want to stop when the 45-minute show ended.
"The hardest part with the kite is getting him to quit," Schabel said. "But who can blame him? It's a beautiful day."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
A Gyr/prairie falcon chases after a decoy thrown by Audrey Poplin, educator at The Center for Birds of Prey, during the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition Birds of Prey demo Friday at Marion Square.×
A barred owl takes flight as spectators look on Friday at Marion Square.×
A yellow-billed kite was one of six birds showcased during the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition Birds of Prey demo Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 at Marion Square. Paul Zoeller/Staff×
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