Kentucky Lawmaker Wants to Legalize Killing Hawks Because One Snatched His Constituent’s Cat

Without consulting state biologists on the topic, lawmaker Gary Boswell claims red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks are causing too much damage to other domestic and wild animals
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cooper's hawk on a branch

Cooper's hawks like the one pictured here help with pest management and are an integral part of the food chain. Gary Eslinger / USFWS

A Kentucky state senator introduced an amendment to the state’s wildlife codes on Jan. 3 that would prevent the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife from imposing penalties and fines for killing two native hawk species. Any unpermitted take of red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks is currently a federal crime under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and violators face huge fines and jail time; both native species help with pest control and maintain ecosystem balance. But such details didn’t dissuade Gary Boswell from introducing Senate Bill 59.

Instead, he acted on behalf of three constituents, who contacted him to complain about hawks. One lost free-ranging chickens to a hawk while another watched a hawk swoop down and carry his cat off in front of his son. The third person was tired of watching hawks pick songbirds off their backyard bird feeder. What were less than ideal experiences for those individuals were also largely preventable by means other than killing hawks. Many farmers and homeowners keep their roaming chickens under an overhead material for this exact reason. Domestic cats are usually the ones killing birds — as many as 4 billion each year in the U.S., which is why wildlife managers and agencies like the USDA stress the importance of keeping cats inside. As for the big bird eating the smaller birds, well, welcome to Planet Earth.

Boswell also cites his own interactions with birds on his property, claiming hawks have been attacking turkey poults. Concerns around faltering turkey populations in the Southeast remain and predation seems to be part of the issue. But when Boswell posted the photo on Facebook, he further revealed his lack of avian expertise. As falconer, nuisance wildlife professional, and OL contributor Tyler Sladen points out to Boswell in the comments, the birds are actually invasive European starlings, not hawks. (Ironically, hawks are a key starling predator.) Additional commenters note that most hawks, including those found in Kentucky, hunt solo.

screenshot of gary boswell facebook post
Sladen’s comment was joined by others criticizing the lawmaker’s proposal. Facebook

Conservation groups and wildlife advocates seem most concerned that Boswell didn’t seek much, if any, expert insight before introducing the amendment. 

“The astonishing thing is not that he misidentified European Starlings as hawks; we’ve all mis-ID’d birds before, and the picture isn’t great,” one commenter writes on Boswell’s post. “The astonishing thing is how someone elected to public service arrogantly dismisses anyone who disagrees with him, even when they are clearly more educated on the subject than he … What a shame.” 

Among the experts not consulted on the feasibility of killing hawks to protect other species were officials at KDFW, which both Boswell and the agency confirmed with the Louisville Journal Courier

“We discovered the bill when it was filed, just like the general public,” KDFW spokesperson Lisa Jackson said. “This is not an initiative of the department.” 

Boswell has since clarified that he’s not “looking to go out and kill all the hawks,” and that he loves the species. Instead, he claims killing problem hawks would be a solution for farmers, pet owners, and wildlife advocates acting in defense of livestock, domestic animals, and harassed turkeys and songbirds.

“I am not advocating [for] a hunting season on hawks,” he writes in a summary of proposed bills. “But I do want to allow people to be able to protect their animals and wildlife.”

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already offers a federal depredation permit to support chicken farmers and other livestock producers who have tried nonlethal deterrents and habitat modification to prevent predation from protected birds. And when it comes to protecting other bird species, seasoned wildlife biologists and managers lend their expertise to science-based hunting regulations, habitat work, and other state wildlife agency measures— like allowing year-round hunting for invasive starlings.