- Associated Press - Thursday, December 24, 2015

AWENDAW, S.C. (AP) - One Christmas morning more than six decades ago, Jim Elliott, the founder and executive director of the Center for Birds of Prey, found a Daisy air rifle under the family tree.

“I ran outside, poured BBs in it and waited for something to move and shot the first thing I saw,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe I actually hit it and ran over to collect and it was a bird, a red-bellied woodpecker, and it was warm and still breathing and I watched it die.”

Elliott, who is now 69, remembers crying over the incident but also being affected by the beauty and delicacy of the creature.

“I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” he said.

It was also the beginning of a life-long love affair with creatures of the air thta a quarter century ago prompted Elliott to start the Charleston Raptor Center - now the Center for Birds of Prey - that is part of the umbrella Avian Conservation Center.

From a five-acre site next to his house where Elliott began treating injured hawks, eagles and other raptors while working in commercial real estate, the center has grown to a 152-acre campus where visitors can see raptors fly and learn about them.

It’s also Elliott’s full-time job.

The center’s 12 staffers teach thousands of students about raptors each year as they visit schools and bring the birds with them. Over the years, 7,000 birds have been treated at the center’s medical clinic and released into the wild.

In 2016, marks the center’s silver anniversary.

“This 25th year thing is invigorating for all of us,” Elliott said. “Did I see this all coming? The answer is no. But we’re following what we thought were all the right markers. I don’t think we need to be any bigger, we just need a few more resources to do what we want to do.”

There are a number of things the center envisions looking toward the next quarter center:

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TAKING STOCK

Early next year, the center plans a stakeholder meeting and will invite anyone who has been involved with the facility to share their thoughts on what it is doing right and what could be improved and where they see it in the future. Involvement could range from foundation representatives who have supported the center to volunteers who have helped out or one of the thousands of school kids who may have seen a raptor demonstration.

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MARKING THE ANNIVERSARY

Next September marks 25 years since the center formed as a nonprofit. An event marking the occasion will be held on the center’s campus, although details are still being worked out.

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OUTDOOR PAVILION

The center envisions an outdoor pavilion so raptor demonstrations can take place even in rainy weather. Currently there are wooden seats for visitors, but there’s no shelter, so demonstrations can’t be held in the rain. The cost is estimated at $200,000 for the center, which has an $800,000 annual operating budget.

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CLASSROOM BUILDING

A more ambitious project is creating a classroom building with a small auditorium for students and natural history exhibits. That’s expected to cost $2.5 million. Elliott hopes to move forward on the outdoor pavilion this year.


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