Charleston eagles and the City Market

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Black vultures like these used to hang around the City Market | Photo by Lydia Fravel

The above photo is by Lydia Fravel and was resized.

Charleston is for the birds. We’ve covered South of Broad’s guinea fowl, but have you heard of Charleston eagles? They’re not really eagles, but they are local to the Lowcountry.

Today we’re talking trash about these local birds, who provided the first solid waste disposal system in Charleston — according to an excerpt from “Charleston Come Hell or High Water: A History in Photographs,” provided by the South Carolina Room. You can check out the book here.

But first, what are they? “Charleston eagles” was a nickname for the black vultures that hung around the Charleston City Market in the 1800s. These scavenging birds formed a symbiotic relationship with market goers and workers — the birds cleared away the meat scraps around the market and got a meal out of the deal.

Here’s a quick timeline:

1800s: In the 1820s, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar wrote about a $5 fine for killing one of these birds. Fast forward to the late 1800s, a woman mentioned in her memoirs a $10 fine for running over a buzzard in Charleston. The fine was doubled. This info can be found in “Charleston Come Hell or High Water.”

1900s: In the early 1900s, the gloomy birds began to be reviled rather than revered. The city became concerned about health and hygiene and the public opinion on the Charleston eagles shifted. With new sanitations codes and the burning of garbage, the vultures became a rare sight.

Today: Next time you toss your Southern barbecue scraps in the trash, think about our scavenging Charleston eagles. While the vultures no longer hang around the City Market, you can visit an exhibit of this bird at The Charleston Museum.

Thank you to the South Carolina Room and librarian Malcolm Hale for helping us create this conversation. FYI: The SC Room’s mission is to collect + preserve materials on local and state history.

Bonus: Use this button to listen in on a local podcast about these black vultures.

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