Illinois hunting and fishing

Bald eagles don’t get their signature white heads and tails until they are about five years old. Photo by Chris Young.

No excuse for shooting a bald eagle

November 03, 2011 at 10:13 AM

What kind of lowlife would shoot down the national bird?

That’s the head-shaking question in the Illinois Valley, especially among police. State and local investigators seek help in finding the jerk who blasted a bald eagle with a shotgun. Riddled with a dozen pellets, the raptor also suffered a broken wing before it was spotted Sunday along the Illinois River near Hennepin.

Thanks to treatment and surgery, the bird will survive — but might not be able to soar in the wild ever again.

“It’s not an accidental shooting,” said veterinarian Robert Harms, who operated on the eagle’s wing Tuesday. “It’s kind of aggravating.”

Bald eagles are protected by federal law. Violators face up to one year in prison and fines up to $100,000.

The Hennepin area is rife with ducks and hunters. But Harms says waterfowl and raptors are highly distinguishable.

“Duck hunters know what they’re doing, more than just about any other hunter,” Harms said. “You can’t mistake an eagle for a duck.”

Echoing that opinion is Rick Battaglia, a tugboat operator with Osage Marine in Hennepin. Sunday, he spotted a bird flopping about on a muddy riverbank. He sees anywhere from 20 to 100 eagles a day in the area but always in the sky or trees.

“Ain’t no one who fools with ’em,” said Battaglia, 51, of Dalzell.

But from about 800 feet away Sunday, he and deckhand Phil Simms easily identified the bird as an eagle.

“It was young. It didn’t have its (white) colors yet,” Battaglia said. “There’s no way you’d mistake it for anything else.”

Quickly, they realized the bird could not get airborne.

“It was trying to get up in the air, flapping its wings,” Battaglia said. “We watched it jump a couple of times, but it wasn’t going anywhere.

“But it could run, though. I think because we were watching, it got nervous and tried to run to try to take off. It had some good legs under it.”

They called the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, which referred them to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. About an hour later, two DNR conservation police officers approached the bank in a johnboat. They tossed a blanket over the eagle — in part to keep its sharp talons at bay and to avoid further injuring the animal. With the blanket, they eased the eagle into a cage and rowed off.

“There’s a lot of coyotes and predators out there,” Battaglia said. “It would’ve gotten eaten by a predator or starved to death. No way it could get food.”

Conservation police took the eagle to Countryside Animal Clinic in Streator, which treats wild birds. Harms, who has worked there 22 years, says he typically tends to about 50 raptors — hawks, owls, eagles — a year. Almost always, their injuries are accidental.

“I’d never had an eagle that had been shot,” he said.

Harms says the male bird looks to be about 10 months old. It weighs 10 pounds, 12 ounces, with a wingspan of about 6½ feet.

Tuesday, Harms operated on the eagle’s broken wing, inserting four carbon-reinforced rods as part of an external fixator. The rods will keep the wing in place as it heals.

“When I try to put a bandage on, he rips it off,” Harms said with a chuckle. “But he doesn’t mind (the fixator).”

Meanwhile, the bird is being medicated with antibiotics and painkillers. It’s being kept in a cage measuring 4-by-3-by-3 feet and fed dead mice and chicken gizzards.

“He’s doing really well today,” Harms said Wednesday. “He’s getting a little ornery, so that’s good.”

The cost of treatment will run $1,500 to $2,000, though Countryside Animal Clinic won’t get a dime.

“We eat it,” Harms said. “We get no funding or anything.”

Harms says he hasn’t taken to giving the eagle a name, though one observer suggested Lucky.

“Maybe we’ll go with that,” Harms said with a laugh.

If good fortune continues today, the eagle could be transferred to a rehabilitation center in northwestern Illinois, where conditions mimic the wild. Within six months, the wing will show whether it will heal to the point the bird can survive on its own. If not, the eagle would be kept in a zoo or other exhibit.

The DNR had no available statistics on the number of eagles shot statewide. But agency spokeswoman Stacy Solano called the Hennepin attack rare.

“It’s pretty serious business,” she said.

The Illinois Conservation Police on Wednesday asked the public for tips via the Illinois Target Poacher Hotline at (877) 236-7529 or the Bureau-Putnam County CrimeStoppers at (815) 925-7412. CrimeStoppers is offering cash rewards of up to a $1,000 for information that pinpoints the shooter.

Wednesday, tugboat pilot Battaglia — who originally thought the eagle had been injured accidentally — was shocked and saddened to hear the bird had been shot.

“That’s crazy. It’s not right,” he says. “I hope they catch whoever did it.”

PHIL LUCIANO is a columnist with the Journal Star. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address),, (800) 225-5757, Ext. 3155. Illinois hunting and fishing