Hawks, eagles, heron, owl, cormorant, vulture – all victims of illegal shootings during pandemic

It was the first time in the two and a half years Nancy McDonald had been a bird rescuer that she had come to the aid of a federally protected bird that was shot – it wouldn’t be the last time though.

That first case for McDonald was a red-tailed hawk which she rescued on April 16, 2020 in Hanover (Anne Arundel County). Maryland was in the midst of the stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus pandemic. McDonald took the bird to Severna Park Veterinary Hospital, where Dr. Jessica Heard saw the in-and-out wounds left by a bullet. Although these wounds made it clear the hawk had been shot, there was no evidence of ammunition left in the bird, which was subsequently euthanized due to the severity of injuries.

Seven months later, on November 27, also in Hanover and four miles away from the April incident, it was a red-shouldered hawk that had been shot. McDonald rescued the bird and took it to Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, De., where it was subsequently euthanized due to its injuries.

Red-shouldered hawk. File photo.

In late October, McDonald was sent by Owl Moon Raptor Center to rescue a bald eagle in Queenstown (Queen Anne’s County). She took the bird to Tri-State and was told, it too had been shot and was subsequently euthanized because of its injuries.

Juvenile bald eagle – gunshot victim. Photo courtesy of Andrew Blair

And in mid-December, McDonald rescued a turkey vulture in Huntington that was also shot and subsequently euthanized.

Nancy McDonald with turkey vulture that was shot. Photo courtesy of Terry Rosenberger.

It isn’t always the bird rehabilitation facilities, or their volunteer rescuers, that receive the initial calls about injured birds. Some go to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources/Maryland Natural Resources Police or park personnel.

In April, according to Lauren Moses, public information officer for Maryland Natural Resources Police, “A male shot and killed an eagle (juvenile bald eagle) because it was going after his chickens and ducks. The shooter stated he didn’t know what kind of bird it was when he shot it. U.S Fish and Wildlife is investigating. This incident took place in Harford County.”

In May, according to Moses, ” Two men shot an owl (great horned ) in a tree at Thomas Point Park in Annapolis. They both face animal cruelty charges. However, a court date has not been set. The owl survived and is currently being rehabilitated. ”

Also in May, according to Moses, “Officers responded to Indian Lane in Hagerstown regarding a blue heron tangled in a fishing line and unable to move. After successfully removing the heron, officers transported the bird to a wildlife center. The center discovered that there was a pellet in the bird’s head and wing. There are no known suspects at this time.”

In November, at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, a hunter shot and killed a cormorant.

“The male alleged that he thought it was a scoter,” according to Moses. “The male was issued a citation for hunting wild birds within the state during the closed season.”

All of these birds are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Eagles are additionally protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Act. Possible penalties for the illegal killing or shooting of these birds include prison and fines. There are additional state and federal laws which might come into play too.

Suzanne Shoemaker, director of Owl Moon Raptor Center in Boyds, Md., said the illegal shootings of federally protected birds isn’t new.

“There’s always a problem every year,” Shoemaker said.

She said red-shouldered hawks are often victims of being shot because they’re very vocal (people can find them easily).

Shoemaker explained that her rehabilitation facility is just one of many and as for the number of shootings she’s aware of, she said, “I can’t say it’s extreme this year.”

Illegal shootings of federally protected birds are also being seen in Virginia.

Normally, we’ll have about a dozen – this year, we’re at 37 right now,” said Dr. Jen Riley, a veterinarian for Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.

Riley isn’t convinced it’s more people shooting at birds, just more people bringing them in.

“We’re seeing increases in intakes in general,” she said.

She believes protecting backyard chickens is part of the shooting issue.

“With COVID, there are a lot of people raising chickens,” Riley said. “A lot of these backyard chicken groups recommend shooting raptors.”

But that method of attempting to stop the problem of birds of prey preying upon chickens isn’t legal and according to Riley, doesn’t work.

“Lethal control methods rarely work,” Riley said, adding there’ll always be other birds.

And Riley has seen many cases where the birds aren’t initially killed by the shooter, but are left for days with gunshot wounds and in some cases, lead poisoning from the ammunition used.

“They’re not killing them,” she said. “The level of suffering is much worse.”

The other concern, according to Riley, is these areas are “residential – densely populated,” where discharging a firearm is against the law.

There were also a number of victims that were shot with BB and air guns. Regarding those cases, Riley has a theory.

“I think it’s very unlikely hunters,” Riley said. “In general, hunters know the rules and are aware of the laws – I think a lot of kids probably don’t.”

Does this go beyond birds?

While agencies such as the Annapolis Police Department (APD) aren’t responsible for investigations involving the shootings of federally protected birds, they do have statistics on reports of shots fired.

Have there been more reports of shots fired and shootings of humans during a year with a pandemic, where more people are home, versus the previous year without a pandemic? Yes, according to the APD.

Shots fired calls

2019 – 123

2020 – 149

Non-fatal shootings

2019 – 11

2020 – 17


2019 – 4

2020 – 6

If you have information that can help the APD with any cases, contact 410-260-3439. You can submit anonymous tips through Metro Crime Stoppers at 1-866-7LOCKUP.

No central database of bird mortality issues

With birds, it’s not as easy to get the true number of gunshot victims in a given area because there are so many organizations and people involved in rescuing them. And there is no central database.

Why wouldn’t the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know about all of these cases since they’re tasked with investigating them? When there’s no evidence left in a bird to report a crime, there’s often no report.

“We’re not required to call it in unless we have evidence,” explained Shoemaker.

On December 12, three hawks were brought into Blue Ridge Wildlife Center and all within three hours of one another. All were shot. A post on the organization’s Facebook page stated, “Being a wildlife rehabilitator can be extremely emotionally taxing. We spend far too much of our time heartbroken, dealing with the cruel and illegal actions of others. Shockingly, none of these gunshots were able to kill the raptor involved. All suffered for many hours before making it to the Center where their suffering could be humanely ended.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 131130715_4111457398868412_3267369761093993338_o-1024x785.jpg
Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Cooper’s Hawk – all gunshot victims and all received on December 12 within a three hour period. Photo courtesy of Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.

“In my three years of doing this, I’ve never seen so many gunshot wounds and so many reports about birds being shot,” said McDonald. “This is incredible – it’s off the charts.”

Update – radio show on these shootings is below.

Update – on January 18, 2021, another bald eagle was shot. This one was in White Hall (see below information from the Maryland Natural Resources Police). This makes three bald eagles shot in Maryland since April.

If you have any information in the shootings of federally protected birds, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 1-844-FWS-TIPS (397-8477) or FWS_tips@fws.gov.


Donna L. Cole is an award-winning reporter who works for WNAV News in Annapolis, Md. She’s also a volunteer bird of prey rescuer in her spare time.

Leave a Reply