Investigators are working to determine who shot two bald eagles in Montgomery County in recent days and why.
The birds were killed in what authorities believe to be unrelated incidents, and it remains unclear whether the shooters knew they were firing on bald eagles.
"These are both major fails on somebody's part," Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police spokeswoman Candus Thomson said. "Eagles, even though they're off the endangered species list, are protected by federal law. A regular person cannot take, harm or capture a bald eagle."
The first shooting happened at about 3 p.m. Christmas Day in Brookeville in a field that adjoins Georgia Avenue and Bordly Drive. The second shooting happened Saturday morning near a home in Darnestown.
Aside from the law-breaking — which comes with a $5,000 fine per eagle and up to a year behind bars — Ms. Thomson said the shootings were irresponsible.
"The [first] eagle was in a field, feeding on a deer carcass," Ms. Thomson said. "The person who called us said she heard a shot and saw a dead eagle. Who knows if [the shooter] knew how close they were to the road. In the case of the second eagle, it came down near a house, so that gives us pause for another reason. It's bad enough an eagle gets shot, but this happened fairly close to a home."
Investigators determined the first eagle was shot with a rifle while the second bird appeared to have been killed with a shotgun, Ms. Thomson said.
"In the case of the first eagle, it was an immature bird that did not have a full white head," she added. "Someone seeing the bird feeding on a carcass might presume that it was a vulture. In the second case, clearly it was a mature bald eagle. Somebody shot at it, fairly close to a home."
Police said Maryland has more than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles, and this time of year the birds are particularly active because it is their mating season.
Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg, said the Chesapeake Bay tidal region — which includes Maryland and Virginia — has roughly 1,600 nesting pairs of bald eagles, which is the largest breeding population in eastern North America.
"Shooting took a while to stamp out, now it's pretty uncommon," Mr. Watts said. "Birds show up dead all the time of various causes. In terms of shooting, thankfully it's not a significant source of mortality."
Ms. Thomson said it's hard to quantify how many eagles are killed by guns, but her department gets calls about dead birds. Ms. Thomson said power lines are problematic, and they can be mortally wounded while protecting their territory from another bird.
"In this case it was fairly unusual because they were three days apart, and they were in the same county," she said.
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