Early Saturday afternoon a man looking for deer sheds in an open field in Eastern Maryland came across something strange—two dead Bald Eagles. And then another...and another. He immediately contacted local authorities, who arrived and began to scour the area for clues. Their search turned up nine more victims.
It was not your typical crime scene—there was no blood, no signs of struggle, no weapon. Still, the death of 13 federally protected raptors has to be something more than a coincidence. “It’s been 30 years since we’ve seen anything like this involving this many dead Bald Eagles,” Candy Thomson, a police spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, told the Washington Post. The last time authorities dealt with a raptor crime scene close to this magnitude was in the early 1980s when suspected poisoning left eight eagles in one area dead (despite a thorough investigation, tests proved inconclusive and the case remains unsolved).
Animal forensics has come a long way in the last three decades, and the 13 deceased birds were sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s state-of-the-art lab in Oregon on Monday for extensive testing and autopsies. “We have the best scientists at the best lab in the world working on this,” Thomson says. Even with all hands on deck, performing 13 necropsies is no quick task, and it could be weeks before any results come back.
Until then, investigators are leaving no stone unturned in their search for evidence—even going door-to-door in pursuit of leads. But with no immediate signs of bodily trauma and no other sick or dead birds found in the area, poisoning—either intentional or not—is the suspected cause of death.
It wouldn’t be the first time poisoning wiped out a slew of Bald Eagles. Unintended exposure to DDT, an insecticide widely used after WWII, pushed these winged predators to the brink of extinction by the 1970s. After years of conservation efforts, an innovative breeding program, and an all-out ban of DDT, their populations stabilized and our national bird was removed from the threatened and endangered species list in 2007.
Frustrated farmers (and a few complete maniacs) have been cited in the past for intentionally poisoning Bald Eagles. But by and large, accidental poisoning is the culprit in hundreds of thousands of bird deaths every year, and could be the cause here, too. Farmers, homeowners, and exterminators frequently use rodenticides and legal poison baits to control vermin, but many of those products are also deadly to birds and mammals that feed on the target species, especially when products are applied too liberally. Alternatively, lead from spent ammunition and fishing tackle is another common source of poisoning; it can quickly kill birds that ingest it from scavenging the tainted remains of a hunted animal or eating fish that have swallowed lead sinkers and hooks from broken fishing line. Even something as seemingly benign as feeding on euthanized livestock carcasses can prove fatal to raptors.
Accidental or not, if the poisoning hunch proves true, someone is liable to face serious consequences. Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, eagles remain a protected species, and anyone caught violating those protections may face felony charges, two years in prison, and up to a $250,000 fine.
Of course, officials haven’t ruled out environmental factors or natural causes. Mass bird die-offs, while not common, are also not unheard of. Thousands of dead Common Murres have washed up on Alaska’s coastline over the past several months after apparently starving to death. And last year 2,000 Snow Geese dropped dead mid-flight in Idaho from a mass cholera outbreak. For now all possibilities are still on the table.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Phoenix Wildlife Center, and the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust have pooled together a $25,000 reward (a major increase from the initial $2,500, thanks in part to a $15,000 donation from the Center for Biological Diversity) for any information that helps break the case. In the meantime federal agents are working tirelessly to figure out what happened to these powerful birds of prey.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include more details on the organizations funding the reward money.