They found them dead, lying in piles around the base of telephone poles and trees – dozens and dozens of dead hawks and other birds blasted from their perches.
Game wardens say they discovered the grisly scene – the site of one of the largest raptor poaching cases in state history – after getting an anonymous tip that a 67-year-old Lassen County man shot a hawk with a rifle on his property.
Wardens arrested Richard Parker on Monday near the high-desert town of Standish, a few miles from California’s northeastern border with Nevada.
They say they still don’t know why he went on his killing spree, shooting bird after bird with his rifle, then leaving their carcasses to rot.
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“We don’t really have an answer,” said Capt. Patrick Foy of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s pretty staggering in its numbers, and that’s certainly the question that everybody is asking.”
Parker, who has since been released from the Lassen County jail, couldn’t be reached for comment. A number listed as his went straight to a message saying his mailbox was full.
After receiving the anonymous tip, warden Todd Kinnard visited Parker’s 80-acre property. As he walked over to knock on the door, he spotted two dead hawks in the tree and seven more around its base, Foy said.
A team of wardens returned Monday with a warrant.
By the time their search was concluded, they found 126 dead birds of prey in varying stages of decay, Foy said.
Most were red-tailed hawks, though at least one owl and a ferruginous hawk rarely seen in Northern California were recovered, Foy said.
Foy said investigators also found two dead bobcats that had been shot and left to rot on Parker’s property. Inside his home, investigators discovered a stuffed mountain lion and several non-game birds, Foy said.
It has been illegal to kill mountain lions or to possess their parts since 1991, when Californians approved Proposition 117, which banned mountain lion hunting.
Parker was booked on suspicion of a slew of wildlife charges, including of taking birds of prey, taking non-game birds protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, taking other non-game birds and possession of unlawfully taken wildlife.
If convicted, Parker faces up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine per each dead raptor and $10,000 for the cougar.
Chief David Bess, who oversees the state’s wildlife officers, said the case shows why it’s so important for citizens to keep calling in tips to the state’s CalTIP poaching line.
“They’re the eyes and ears for our officers,” Bess said. “We don’t have enough folks out in the field and we can’t be everywhere all the time. .... Without that, this would have continued on. We wouldn’t have known to look this fellow up and start watching him.”
Despite its shocking bird body count, Parker’s case isn’t the largest in California history.
In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accused a group of Southern California men who bred specialized competitive birds known as “roller” pigeons of killing as many as 1,000 to 2,000 raptors every year. After an undercover investigation, the agency charged seven men on suspicion of illegally trapping, shooting and poisoning Coopers hawks, red-tailed hawks and Peregrine falcons to protect their pigeons.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reported Parker’s alleged poaching case was the largest in state history. It has been updated to reflect the 2007 federal case.