Vulture Awareness Day aims to change perceptions

A black vulture flies at the Center for Birds of Prey last year as part of a demonstration. The center is participating in International Vulture Awareness Day on Sept. 5 and aims to educate the public about these beneficial birds.

AWENDAW -- The lowly vulture, a symbol of death and decay, gets a bad rap. The big birds are clean and intelligent, and without them, the ecology would suffer.

"They play such a crucial role that we take for granted," said Jim Elliott, executive director of The Center for Birds of Prey.

The center will participate in International Vulture Awareness Day on Sept. 5. Among the planned activities are vulture flight demonstrations and a trip to the "Vulture Restaurant" where animal control officers take deer and other animals killed on highways. And a pair of vulture chicks will make their debut.

About 400 injured birds are brought to the center annually. Of those, about 15 percent are black vultures or turkey vultures, Elliott said. He has seen drivers swerve to try to hit a vulture. And vultures have been brought to the center with multiple gunshot or bow-and-arrow injuries, he said.

"Most people see vultures as a nuisance, but they are misunderstood and ecologically important," said Stephen Schabel, education director at the Center for Birds of Prey. "Without this natural recycler, our ecosystem would be in poor, unstable condition."

In India, where hundreds of thousands of vultures mysteriously dropped dead in the early 1990s, rat populations exploded and huge packs of wild dogs took over the trash dumps. The problem was traced to a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used in lame cattle. When vultures ate dead cattle, the now-banned drug killed them.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711 or pfindlay@postandcourier.com.