The sight sent a jolt of horror through bird watchers June Whitten and Diana Dillenburg.
On a rock face in Coombs Canyon, a ferruginous hawk lay dead, near where the women had seen him at a nest only a few weeks prior. The nest was now empty and there was no sign of his mate. Sadness washed over both women.
“We were about in tears,” Whitten said. “It was an emotional thing.”
Ferruginous hawks are the largest hawks, about the same size as osprey. The birds sport rusty backs, a white underside and feathers all the way to their feet. The women, though they travel around the county on weekly birdwatching expeditions, don’t often see this type of hawk.
Dillenburg climbed the steep hill carrying a scoop shovel, a plastic bag and a pair of gloves and collected the carcass. They delivered the decomposing raptor to Lynn Tompkins, executive director at Blue Mountain Wildlife, who took an X-ray. The image showed bullet fragments and a leg broken in two places.
“It either starved or bled out,” she said.
Tompkins sees plenty of gunshot birds at her rehabilitation facility. The majority come in alive, but the odds are slim the birds will stay that way.
“Most of them get euthanized,” she said. “They are too damaged. We just can’t fix them.”
In 2016, 42 gunshot birds came to the facility, including multiple red-tailed hawks, a great blue heron and a pelican. Only five could be saved.
Several raptors who likely will never fly free live in a flight pen on the premises. Three of the five suffered gunshot wounds. A male red-tailed hawk came to Tompkins after being shot with an air rifle. A rough-legged hawk has an amputated leg — the result of a bullet. A Harlan’s hawk suffered two broken wings from a shotgun blast.
“She holds the record,” Tompkins said of the Harlan’s hawk. “She has 21 pieces of lead in her body.”
Tomkins is obligated to report such human aggression toward migratory birds. She emails radiographs of the injuries to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon State Police and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects ferruginous hawks and 1,026 other native bird species. The law says one cannot “pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect migratory birds.” Bald and golden eagles have extra protections through another piece of legislation, aptly called the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The law prohibits harming or taking eagles or their parts, nests and eggs. Even picking an eagle feather off the ground is illegal.
Special Agent in Charge Jim Ashburner, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said people convicted of shooting migratory birds don’t conform to one type.
“They run the gamut from the 12-year-old with a BB gun to people trying to commercially harvest eagles so they can sell the feathers,” Ashburner said.
Getting caught harming migratory birds can be an expensive proposition.
Last year, a federal magistrate fined a teenager in Beaumont, Texas, $25,850 and 200 hours of community service for shooting two whooping cranes.
A Virginia man faces a possible $1,000 fine and a year in prison after shooting a bald eagle with a .22-caliber rifle and finishing the bird off with a handgun. According to court documents, he complained the bird ate fish from his pond.
Catching someone in the act is difficult. Authorities from federal and state wildlife agencies and other law enforcement often rely on reports by members of the public.
“They are the eyes and ears for bird conservation,” said Mike Green, deputy chief of the USFWS migratory bird program. “We can’t be everywhere. We rely on information from the public.”
Though the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects most birds, there are exceptions.
“We allow scientists to collect birds for scientific investigation,” Green said.
Also, he said, a farmer dealing with birds damaging crops may apply for a depredation permit. Hunters are allowed to shoot waterfowl and upland game during state-controlled hunting seasons. Additionally, the law allows the shooting of some invasive species such as starlings and house sparrows.
This month, Oregon State Police and the USFWS reached out to the public for help finding a suspect who they believe shot a bald eagle north of Gaston in late June. After someone spotted the injured eagle, police caught the bird after following it through thick brush and a swamp. An X-ray revealed metal fragments that indicated a gun had caused the damage.
Tompkins, at Blue Mountain Wildlife, feels frustrated every time she sees the result of bullets or shotgun pellets tearing through a bird.
“These are intentional acts,” she said. “The vast majority of shooters never get caught.”
Whitten, who spends every Wednesday birdwatching with Dillenburg and two other birdwatching enthusiasts, laments the senseless death of the ferruginous hawk and possibly his mate, too.
“Ferruginous hawks are beautiful, big, lovely birds,” she said.
Whitten said she and her fellow bird watchers from the Pendleton Bird Club aren’t seeing as many as they once did in the county. At one time, she knew of 10 nests and now knows of only two.
Green said his quest to protect migratory birds and other wildlife is more than just a job.
“We’re in this game because we love wildlife,” he said. “Our overriding concern is the conservation of these birds and making sure they persist over time.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-966-0810.