Recuperating raptors

Friday, February 24, 2006

A Sedgewickville couple cares for the wounded birds until they can be released back into the wild.

SEDGEWICKVILLE, Mo. -- The 2-year-old bald eagle knows John and Carolyn Watkins; he's been recuperating in their barn for almost two months and ate out of Carolyn's hand when he first arrived.

But you could never tell his familiarity by the way the bird cautiously follows Carolyn's every move as she slowly opens his cage door.

If he is a bit skeptical of humans, it would be understandable.

After all, his tail feathers are missing after he was shot out of his nest in Perry County.

The eagle is perched on a makeshift tree branch inside the barn at the back of the Watkins' Sedgewickville home.

"He likes me," Carolyn says softly as she creeps closer toward him. "I'm the good guy."

Further on back from the barn sits another large cage with a great horned owl inside. John Watkins walks over, removes the owl and lifts up the bird's left wing, revealing another gunshot wound.

The bird snaps his beak while John holds up his wing and points out a raw spot where the bullet hit.

"He suffered nerve damage as a result of the bullet's impact," John said. "We're not sure if he'll be able to fly again."

The two have cared for the owl since November. If he can't fly, he'll need to be put to sleep.

"Normally we wouldn't have kept him this long, but I keep telling John, let's just wait a few more weeks," Carolyn said.

These two shootings of federally protected birds, along with a wounded red-tailed hawk the Watkins received on Monday, are part of a trend, say the couple and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Cape Girardeau County conservation agent Darin Pettit said four bald eagles were shot in Southeast Missouri in the last six weeks.

When the Watkinses first started taking in wounded wild animals in 1969, they received a large number of birds of prey. But that number decreased shortly after the couple, along with the Missouri Department of Conservation, went around educating people about these federally protected birds.

"Lately we've been starting to receive more birds of prey that have been shot," John Watkins said. "It's really been increasing over the past couple years."

Pettit estimates that last year, 20 to 30 federally protected birds were shot in the area. He believes the increased number of shootings is because federally protected birds are becoming more common.

"The respect for these critters is going down a bit," Pettit said. "They were rarely seen for a while in this part of the state, but now they're becoming more plentiful."

Another reason for the increased shootings is because hunters think birds of prey, which includes owls, eagles and hawks, play a large role in the decline of small game, especially quail, Pettit said.

John Watkins said it's important to keep nature in balance and explains that birds of prey actually benefit hunters, especially quail hunters.

"If you have two field mice and allowed them to reproduce, in three months you would have 240 mice," he said. "Mice will eat quail eggs, same with snakes."

Currently there are no birds in season for hunting, and seasons are something poachers sometimes use as a cover to shoot a federally protected animal, John Watkins said.

Killing or shooting any bird of prey is a state and federal offense. The class A misdemeanor carries penalties of a $1,000 fine or a year in jail.

Several weeks ago, a Jackson man was investigated by the Jackson Police Department and was found to have been in custody of four body parts from various federally protected birds. Pettit plans to speak with the prosecuting attorney about filing charges, but that can be hard to pursue.

"I can't prove that he shot the birds," Pettit said. "A lot of these people like to shoot these birds because they want an eagle feather or part of the tail or foot."

The Missouri Department of Conservation relies heavily on the public for any information regarding the shooting of a federally protected animal. A reward is available if it leads to the arrest and conviction of a poacher.

To report any shooting suspect of a federally protected animal, contact the conservation department at (800) 392-1111.

335-6611, extension 246

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