One morning last month, Joel Strong of Zephyrhills stumbled on a horrifying sight near the end of his driveway: a red-shouldered hawk, bleeding, with both wings and one leg broken. Because he's an experienced hunter, he immediately saw what was wrong with the bird.
It had been blown out of the sky by someone with a shotgun.
Strong wrapped the injured hawk in a shirt and called Brandon resident Nancy Murrah of the Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue organization. She rushed the bird to veterinarians at Busch Gardens, where an X-ray showed eight shotgun pellets in its body. But the hawk was beyond saving. They had to euthanize it.
Shooting hawks violates both state and federal law, so Murrah notified the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But as has happened with every similar case, the officer who investigated couldn't find any evidence that would lead to the shooter. Not even Strong had heard the blast that knocked down the hawk.
In rural, urban and suburban areas of Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando counties, people have repeatedly gunned down hawks, ospreys, herons and other bird species that are protected under the law.
Yet so far, no one has been punished for it.
"It's frustrating," said Murrah. "People who shoot a bird and get away with it, they will shoot a bird again."
Murrah figures her group collects two birds a month that have been shot, most of them hawks. This time of year is when they see a lot of red-shouldered hawks die because spring is when they nest.
While nesting, the birds become loud and aggressive toward anyone or anything that might seem like a threat. That, she said, often leads to Floridians reaching for a gun. That's especially true in areas where people are raising backyard chickens, she said.
Other kinds of birds have been found shot dead in recent years. In St. Petersburg's Shore Acres subdivision, for instance, four ospreys, a great blue heron, a mallard duck and a turkey vulture have been gunned down since 2012, according to Barbara Walker, the CEO of Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue.
State wildlife laws say all those birds should be protected from being shot. But raptors like the red-shouldered hawks are also covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a federal law, which carries a top penalty of a $500 fine and six months behind bars.
Statewide, red-shouldered hawks have been the most frequent illegal targets. Since 2001, the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland has taken in 189 shot birds, and 91 of them have been red-shouldered hawks, Walker said.
Finding who did it is nearly impossible without someone witnessing the crime.
"It's really hard to make these cases unless we have some evidence," said Gary Morse of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
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Some of the shootings are most likely done by kids who don't know they're breaking the law, said Walker. She said she's noticed there's usually an increase right after Christmas, when — as demonstrated in the movie A Christmas Story — parents decide the best gift for their children is a pellet gun.
Some shooters, she believes, are homeowners upset about a bird repeatedly pooping on a car or boat. Others, she said, may be owners of backyard chickens or racing pigeons who shoot because they believe their flock is under attack by the larger birds.
Three years ago, Brooksville resident Suzanne Martin found a Cooper's hawk that had been shot. She was pretty sure the shooter was a neighbor with racing pigeons because she'd seen him blasting away at an egret that got too close to his birds. But when a wildlife officer investigated, he could find no evidence to pin the crime on anyone, she said.
"They had no proof that this particular person shot this particular bird," she said. "They were very sarcastic about it — 'Did you see him shoot this bird?' I didn't."
But ever since the investigator questioned people in the neighborhood, Martin said, "I haven't seen any other activity like that where they were shooting at them."
Apparently it made a difference, she said, "to let them know that somebody was watching."
Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.