It was easy to do, jumping to the conclusion that an unethical hunter had shot and injured a bald eagle, leaving it in such a poor, bloody condition that it couldn’t — or wouldn’t — fly.

Found Dec. 7 at a deer camp near Barnett Reservoir in Rankin County, the eagle has since been treated and fed at a Jackson veterinarian clinic that specializes in avian care.

Read the full story here.

The bird is now ready for flight rehab.

At the clinic, vets found that the eagle’s dire shape was not caused by shots, at least not the primary cause. X-rays seeking broken bones did locate what appears to be three shotgun pellets in different areas of the raptor’s body, but no matching wounds to the skin were found. Its wings were not injured, nor were any other bones in the body broken.

In other words, yes, the mature bald eagle had been shot, but when is definitely in question, as is where it was shot. It could have been shot months ago in another part of North America. Who knows?

We do know, doctors said, that it was not a recent shotgun blast that left the eagle’s majestic white head red with blood in the photos that raced through the Internet and onto TV screens.

The doctors found no wounds in the head area that could have been the source of the bleeding.

Yet, for two days, it was all over news and rewards were being offered for the identification, capture and prosecution of the “low-bread scumbag hunter(s)” responsible.


Majestic symbol of freedom

A big factor in the public outcry is the mystique of the majestic bald eagle, a cherished national symbol and considered by most a rarity in Mississippi. Although hundreds of mating pairs are scattered around the state, including many who stay year-round, few Mississippians ever encounter one.

To see a mature bald eagle is indeed awe-inspiring. They are big birds, really big birds, and they are really pretty birds. 

With a six-foot or more wingspan and the striking white heads and tail feathers, they are a sight not soon forgotten — 35 years into a career of outdoor writing and I can remember every single eagle encounter.

Once seriously endangered, the species is now flourishing, or seemingly so. I am seeing them in Mississippi now as often as I did on my trips to Wyoming and Montana decades ago.

Each fall and winter, they are frequently seen along the Mississippi River, the Tenn-Tom Waterway, the Pearl River basin and coastal rivers. The day before the injured eagle was found about five miles away (as the eagle flies), my wife and I had a close encounter with one while driving across the dam at Barnett Reservoir. It flew right past our car, maybe 20 feet above and 10 yards in front of us, giving us a perfect view.

“Oh my God, it’s beautiful,” cooed my wife, who has only seen one or two in her life, and those at a distance. “It was like I was looking at it eyeball to eyeball, and I could see the sun’s reflection in its golden eye.”

That kind of reaction is what sensationalized this story and led to the derogatory statements about hunters.

“How could any hunter shoot such a majestic symbol of our country?”

“Damned hunters!”

“Stupid rednecks!”


Not totally off the hook

Were we vindicated when the veterinarians learned the eagle’s poor condition was related to an infection from a puncture wound of unknown origin to the bird’s groin region and apparently not from a recent gunshot?

I guess maybe, at least a bit. Don’t forget, there’s still the matter of the three round metal objects found on the X-rays.

A vet treating the bird said the pellets appeared to be about 3mm in size. According to a chart posted online by gunslot.com, a 3mm object would be somewhere around a No. 4 (3.30mm), a No. 5 (3.05mm) or a No. 6 (2.79mm) shotgun pellet. 

Of the three, only No. 6 would be used for small game or upland game birds. No. 4 and No. 5 would be more of what you’d find used for duck or turkey.

There was some thought that the eagle could have ingested the shot pellets, but the location of one, near the shoulder, eliminates that possibility.

Bottom line: The bald eagle, at some point, had been shot by some idiot.

In my lifetime, I have met and become friends with hundreds of Mississippi hunters, not one of which I believe would ever consider shooting a bald eagle, or any other non-game creature.

But I know “scumbag hunters” do exist, because I often see the evidence simply driving around the state.

Just this year, I’ve seen:

* the remains of skinned-out deer tossed on the side of the road.

* bucks with heads removed from a body with a bullet hole in the chest.

* deer in ditches with only the backstraps removed.

* street signs, river buoys and channel markers riddled by shotgun blasts.

* a pile of dead doves, about three or four dozen, on a highway shoulder.

Those acts, while not equal to the atrocity of shooting a bald eagle, are unethical practices that give all hunters a bad name.

Just a fact of life.