Solace for feathered friends

Nancy Rumchak (center), a volunteer from Mount Pleasant, carries a crate holding a recovering bird into the Center for Birds of Prey on Wednesday

International Center for Birds of Prey moves into its new medical center

AWENDAW -- Open a new hospital, offer free health care, and they really do flock in by the bus load.

On Wednesday, the International Center for Birds of Prey moved into its new Avian Medical Center and managed to reach two milestones at once: consolidating its operations onto one campus, and opening what is probably the only East Coast facility capable of treating thousands of birds injured by oil spills.

It was a major step toward a full opening of the $9 million Birds of Prey Center, which already offers scheduled tours. The non-profit's staff will now turn its attention to an education building and a campaign to raise the nearly $3 million needed to finish the center. A full opening is expected by the middle of next year.

But the first priority for the center's small staff always has been the medical center. Each year the staff and dozens of volunteers take in hundreds of owls, eagles, hawks, falcons and vultures with a variety of ailments. Some have been hit by cars, others have been injured in some other way. A few suffer gunshot wounds. The Birds of Prey Center's crew fixes them up and releases them back into the wild.

A bus filled with several dozen patients arrived at the new medical building Wednesday afternoon; volunteers unloaded them in the heavy rain. The birds had come from the center's original medical center a few miles up the road, a converted Sunday school building on executive director Jim Elliott's property.

"It served us well for 15 years, but it was designed to treat 100 birds a year," Elliott, the founder of the center, said. "We're treating more than 400 a year right now."

To say this place is for the birds is kind of misleading. The new medical center is a technological marvel, complete with two operating rooms, a radiology department and various facilities to wash, dry and de-oil birds caught in oil spills.

The building's focus reflects its funding. The center was paid for with a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and S.C. Department of Natural Resources, using money collected in a lawsuit against a tanker that spilled 24,000 gallons of fuel off Charleston in 1999.

Although the medical center is not part of the tour, the staff hopes to set up video feeds from treatment and operating rooms into the education building.

It has been a year of great change for the Birds of Prey Center. The staff moved its business offices onto the site in June and has been working on the cart and walking paths that meander through the 152-acre property donated by local attorney Joseph Rice in 2003.

Four years later, Elliott says it is all coming together. After a parting of the ways with international director Jemima Parry-Jones, which proved a distraction for more than a year, the center now seems on a course to open soon.

And it's none too soon for some of the volunteers.

"We have waited so long to have a really great facility like this," said Mary Pringle, a 10-year volunteer. "The birds deserve the best, and now we will be able to give them the best. And maybe we'll attract new volunteers, too."

Elliott said the medical center's opening could not have come at a better time. It's the busy season in bird doctoring.

"More birds are in the state right now because of migration," Elliott said. "We've got 80 birds in our care right now. It's exciting to have everything on one site. But it's like any move. We'll be living out of boxes for a while."