Search for Maryland's goshawk killer continues as biologists try to remain hopeful

What kind of critter takes a loaded shotgun into the woods out of hunting season to blow away a bird living in the leafy canopy overhead?

It's a question that has kept me awake the last several nights after state wildlife officials announced that someone had killed perhaps Maryland's rarest of birds — a northern goshawk — while it was attempting to raise three chicks.

And from the emails I've gotten, it's kept some of you up, too.

It was a deliberate act. The nest was on public land, far from homes and commerce. There were no reports of it bothering anyone's family, pets or livestock or pooping on anyone's truck.

"This wasn't a squawking bird. This was something special," said Jonathan McKnight, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

That fact was lost on someone who, on a morning in early June, loaded a shotgun, walked into Savage River State Forest and fired a blast at a bird that was doing what it was hard-wired to do: feed its growing family.

This wasn't the first time humans interacted badly with goshawks.

In the 1900s, civilization's insatiable need for lumber drove the birds from Maryland. The raptor was placed on the state's endangered species list, with the notation that fewer than five birds remained. As the woods grew back, so did the hope that the birds might someday return.

In the last decade, three to four pairs came and left.

Then this spring, observers noticed something that had been missing since 2006: a large bowl-like nest of sticks in a tall tree just below the canopy, lined with bark and green leaves.

That the male and female chose a site in the dark, cool woods of Garrett County was cause to celebrate.

"When they showed up this year it was good news. When they had three healthy chicks, that was very good news," said Dave Brinker, a DNR wildlife biologist who has worked with northern goshawks for 30 years.

Brinker checked the nest on June 6 and saw that the chicks were alone. He didn't think much of it because often, as the demand for food increases, the female joins the male in quick hunting forays.

He returned to the spot on June 17, about the time he calculated the chicks should have been close to fledging.

"No chicks, no begging, no mother," he recalled.

He found the remains of one chick under the nest.

"You find one little pile and you start looking around," he said.

A short ways off, he found a large carcass with three pellet wounds in its sternum.

"At that point, I knew what happened," said Brinker. "My guess is she was dead on June 6. If I had walked a little farther that day I might have found her. It makes it so hard."

What a waste of life by a waste of life.

"I'd like to try and get something good out of this, some educational moment," Brinker continued. "This is not the right way to behave in 2011."

Not too far north of the crime scene stands a mountain that serves as a reminder of how badly humans once behaved.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania was created in 1934 by animal lovers appalled that the state game commission offered a $5 bounty for each goshawk killed (a policy not discontinued until 1951). Shooters would line up in the fall for a crack at killing hundreds of goshawks and other birds of prey migrating south that used the mountain's thermal updrafts to save strength.

With the mountain no longer acting as a gun platform, the raptors rebounded. Legal protection followed.

But laws are worthwhile only when people obey them and other people turn in the bad actors.

The Garrett County northern goshawk was protected by federal law. Shooting it was a crime. The scene was turned over to Natural Resources Police, which consulted with federal wildlife agents.

Officers took photos and collected evidence (Did you drop something, shooter?)

The Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Foundation immediately offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter. Other outraged groups are expected to sweeten the pot.

"If the price is right, I have seen a reward help," one veteran federal agent told me.

While a reward might prod someone to drop a dime and feed our sense of justice being done, it may not be the ideal way to display our better selves.

Perhaps the reward money could be used to improve Brinker's telemetry gear so he can better track the birds. Or help train a new generation of bird biologists. And maybe we should promise ourselves that the next time a developer wants to turn woodlands into a crummy strip mall or hideous mountainside vacation resort, we'll send him packing.

Brinker says the male goshawk may hang around all winter.

"His challenge comes in February or March, when he's got to pick up a new mate. He could leave the area to do that," he said.

Let's hope we give him a reason to stay.

"We can't bring those birds back," said McKnight of the female and her chicks. "But we can invest our energy to make things better. This habitat is here and that's the triumph. We can do something to ensure that the next goshawk will have a place to go."