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The struggle to save a bald eagle

Tuesday - 12/31/2013, 9:01pm  ET

GAITHERSBURG, Md. - The first report came from Brookville on Christmas Day.

A young bald eagle was shot as it fed on the carcass of a deer off Georgia Avenue. That bird died almost immediately.

The second report to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police looked, at first, a bit more hopeful.

A wounded adult female, distinctive with her white head and tail, had been found near Deakins Lane in Darnestown. The hope was that if she received immediate care, she could be saved. Suzanne Shoemaker with Owl Moon Raptor Center got in touch with the staff at Gaithersburg's Second Chance Wildlife Center and brought the bird in.

"We were able to radiograph the bird," says Kathleen Handley, clinic director at Second Chance. Clinic workers found it had a shattered head of the humerus, which is comparable to the bone that runs from a human shoulder to the elbow, and also found on the X-ray a bullet pellet in the abdomen of the bird.

Handley says the severity of the break to the bird's left wing meant she'd never fly again.

Shoemaker says the right wing was also badly contorted.

Handley says those injuries were likely the result of crashing to the ground after being shot. The outlook was grim.

"The only way to keep her alive would be to amputate the entire wing, and that's not a good life for a bird. Even in captivity," Handley says.

So after consulting with the Department of Natural Resources Police, they made the tough call, and euthanized the big bird of prey.

Handley says it's not unusual to treat raptors that have been injured. Like other wildlife, they are often the victims of collisions with cars. And it's not terribly unusual to see hawks that have been shot.

But getting bald eagles that have been shot is unusual. Handley says it was distressing to hear of two injured birds in a single week. One on Christmas day, the second on Dec. 28.

"We've done an awful lot in this country to bring (bald eagles) back from the brink of extinction, and it's disconcerting and disheartening to find people just shooting them," she says.

Bald eagles are no longer endangered, but they are federally protected and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police is investigating. And police are asking for the public's help. You can contact their poacher hotline at 1- 800-635-6124 and there is a reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of whoever is responsible.

Police say at this time they don't think the two cases are related.

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WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @kateryanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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