The X-ray of a pellet-riddled hawk glowed starkly on the medical center wall as Jim Elliott explained the problem his staff deals with every year.
Hawks are being shot across South Carolina, despite federal laws to protect them.
Elliott, director of the Center for Birds of Prey near Charleston, sees evidence of the onslaught each time a gunshot hawk winds up at the raptor hospital his organization runs. In some years, up to 15 percent of the 600 birds treated at the medical center have suffered gunshot wounds, Elliott said.
“It’s always sad to see when you have a bird come in here like this,’’ he said. “You ask ‘Why?’ ”
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No one knows for sure who is blasting away at hawks, but federal prosecutors say some of the blame lies with people who hunt or manage property for quail, a dwindling game bird prized by many sportsmen.
With quail populations plummeting and several hawk species on the rebound, some quail hunters have taken aim at hawks, records show.
In 2014, three Lowcountry men pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally trapping and killing hawks and owls at the MacKay Point hunting plantation in Jasper County. All told, federal prosecutors said they found 30 gunshot birds on the plantation, an 8,000-acre hunting preserve not far from Hilton Head Island and Beaufort.
During the winter quail hunting season, the men put out dozens of baited, steel traps, caught hawks and owls, and killed them, according to the U.S Attorney’s office. After the men pleaded guilty in federal court in August 2014, MacKay Point had to pay a $250,000 fine as restitution for the bird deaths. Those pleading guilty also were sentenced to community service, fines of $500 to $1,000 and a one-year ban on trapping.
At the time, federal prosecutors said killing birds of prey to improve quail hunting had become a widespread problem in the Southeast.
“These birds of prey would just kill the quail and it would ruin the hunting, so these rich guys would trap the birds of prey,” Rhett DeHart, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the MacKay Point case, said in an interview with The State last week. “In my limited experience, it was very much related to quail hunts.”
In the past month, prosecutors have leveled charges of illegally killing hawks in a case involving another South Carolina plantation.
The U.S. Attorney’s office charged University of South Carolina board member Charles Williams and three other men with killing hawks at Willcreek Plantation in Orangeburg County. Williams, a prominent Orangeburg lawyer who works with Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto, is the registered agent for Willcreek Plantation, a nearly 1,800-acre tract on U.S. 301 just outside Orangeburg.
So far, prosecutors have not said why the hawks were killed. But as in the Mackay Point case, prosecutors said Williams and others unlawfully trapped and killed hawks in violation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The law prohibits killing hawks and owls without a federal permit. During the probe, federal authorities said they found 30 dead raptor carcasses.
Assistant U.S. attorney Eric Klumb, who is handling the prosecution, was unavailable for comment Friday.
Hutto, who along with Charleston lawyer Gedney Howe, is representing Williams, declined comment Friday when asked about the case.
Hawks are meat-eating birds that feast on everything from rats, rabbits and squirrels to quail. They range in size from the red-tailed hawk, a raptor with a ruddy tail and a wing span of up to four feet, to the sharp-shinned hawk, a small carnivore that lives in the forests of the Southeast.
Long persecuted by farmers who saw hawks as threats to eat their chickens, populations suffered in the early- to mid-1900s as people fired away at them. But attitudes began to change in the 1960s, and by 1972, hawks and owls had gained federal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Some hawks remain imperiled today, but other populations are on the rebound, most notably the red-tail. Since 1966, red-tail populations have grown 1.5 percent every year in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Some people who once shot hawks stopped doing so as they learned more about raptors, wildlife researchers say. Not only are the birds beautiful, but they provide an important role in controlling populations of rodents and other small mammals, experts say.
“People today are much more informed than they were 100 years ago,’’ said David Ziolkowski, a bird researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent wildlife center in Maryland. “They know hawks are a natural part of the landscape.”
Ziolkowski said the improving red tail population is also likely because of a reduction of deadly DDT in the environment, a chemical that in the 1960s was hurting hawk reproduction.
That’s why Ziolkowski said it’s disturbing that everyone with a gun hasn’t gotten the message not to shoot hawks.
Hawks aren’t the reason quail populations are down, several wildlife researchers said. Instead, quail are suffering because big farms and urbanization have encroached on their habit, they said.
Shooting hawks results “from ignorance,” Ziolkowski said. “When you get down to it, it doesn’t make much sense.”
Red-tailed hawks are among the most commonly treated for gunshot wounds at the hospital Elliott oversees, possibly because they are the easiest to spot soaring high above farms and cities, he said. The number of all hawks treated for gunshot wounds each year at the center likely represents only a fraction of those hit by bullets or shotgun pellets, Elliott said.
“We know there are more,” Elliott said, explaining that many die instantly after being shot. “It stands to reason that most birds that get shot die.”
Even some of those brought in for medical attention don’t make it.
The X-ray Elliott examined last week showed the bird suffered from more than 25 shotgun pellets on all parts of its body, including the wings, the abdomen and the beak. Medical center staff said they could not save the hawk.
Another hawk whose X-ray Elliott examined last week escaped death. That bird, which suffered fewer shotgun wounds, was brought in for treatment in 1999.
Today, the hawk is on public display in a viewing area at the Center for Birds of Prey, a non-profit education facility on U.S. 17. Many of the birds displayed at the center were saved from death by medical staff, but suffered permanent injuries, such as wing damage, that prevented the animals from being returned to the wild.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Atlanta didn’t have statistics last week to show how many hawks are being shot in the Southeast, but agency officials acknowledged hawk shootings aren’t isolated to South Carolina. Agency spokesman Tom MacKenzie said many predators that people consider nuisance wildlife have been targeted through the years. Some have been poisoned, while others have been shot, he said.
Unlike coyotes and hogs, however, hawks are protected by a federal law used in recent years by prosecutors. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act says anyone convicted of killing a hawk or owl without federal permission faces fines of up to $15,000 and six months in prison per offense.
Some hawk shootings likely result from reckless people who fire at the birds for sport without realizing the value of protecting wildlife — or that their actions are illegal, say federal officials and wildlife experts. It’s possible that some raptors could be shot by accident, as well.
But Elliott said while many quail hunting plantations act responsibly, hawk shootings are “still a pretty broad problem” because of a phenomenon that has emerged over the years.
Since wild quail have become scarce, sportsmen are buying pen-raised quail, releasing them on the land and hunting the birds. The U.S. Geological Survey says bobwhite quail populations in South Carolina have dropped 6.4 percent each year since 1966
Farm-raised birds, however, are tamer and less able to escape predators than wild quail, some hunters say. That makes the farm birds easy pickings for hungry hawks that see the docile quail and swoop in for meals.
Research by Tall Timbers, an organization that supports re-establishing wild quail habitat, shows that large numbers of quail die within a year. Many predators — ranging from fire ants to rats and snakes — contribute to losses of the small, tasty game birds. But hawks and owls are most notable, the group says.
Hawks and owls account for 60 to 70 percent of the quail deaths resulting from predators, Tall Timbers says.
Losing quail can cost landowners thousands of dollars. In the MacKay Point case, prosecutors said the plantation released 6,000 birds a year. Assuming the plantation paid $3.50 for each bird, which is considered a standard rate in South Carolina, the annual cost of buying 6,000 birds would have been about $21,000.
“They are spending money on habitat and birds and their ultimate measure of success is game in the bag,” said Billy Dukes, a state Department of Natural Resources wildlife official. “A quail eaten by a hawk is not taken by a hunter.”
South Carolina has 41 public shooting preserves, almost all of which offer quail hunting for sportsmen, the state Department of Natural Resources says. The state also has 16 businesses that have registered to raise quail, although DNR officials say the number is probably higher.
Kenneth Lucas, a Swansea quail preserve operator who also sells quail for other sportsmen to hunt, said he would never shoot a hawk because it’s against the law. But Lucas said the problem with predators — including hawks — can’t be ignored.
“The quail is an hors d’oeuvre; everything is after it,” Lucas said, noting that “hawks are one of the number one killers.”
The primary reason quail numbers have dropped sharply since the 1960s is loss of habitat, said Theron Terhune, a Tall Timbers quail researcher. Bigger farms and fewer weedy areas that quail thrive in have caused populations to spiral downward, he said. As the big farms cut to the edge of the woods and eliminated quail habitat, populations dropped, he said.
Predators “have exacerbated the declines, but they’re not the sole reason,” Terhune said.
Elliott said he hopes the federal attention to illegal hawk killing will discourage people from going after hawks. He said some folks already have changed their attitude about exterminating hawks to protect quail.
“I know of specific instances where the practice used to take place on a given plantation or property, but now it no longer does,” he said. “ They’ve been converted to the broader view and understand the cost of doing business now. It’s not hopeless, although I’m confident there is still a whole lot of that activity going on.”