What Happens If You Kill A Bald Eagle?

Have you ever wondered what happens if you kill a bald eagle? Is there any legal protection in place to help discourage such killings? What if you mistakenly or unintentionally kill the eagle–what are the legal repercussions you can expect to face? In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions and more.

What Happens if You Accidentally Kill a Bald Eagle?

what happens if you accidentally kill a bald eagle

The bald eagle is the United States’ national bird, and as such, most Americans would not deliberately kill it. But what if you mistake the majestic bird for something else, or you shoot it accidentally in some way?

The laws regarding bald eagles are pretty harsh even for those who kill one unintentionally, and the laws do not necessarily make allowances for those who are unaware of them.

If you kill a bald eagle, whether intentionally or not, you could be subject to a number of convictions and fines. Jail time is also possible. 

Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, it is a crime to disturb both bald and golden eagles as well as their nests, eggs, and any part of them. Trapping, transporting, killing, or otherwise molesting bald and golden eagles is going to get you in trouble unless you have a prior permit.

The maximum civil penalties for a first offense are $5,000 or a year in prison. A second offense has a maximum $10,000 civil penalty or up to two years in prison.

Criminal fines are much steeper, as follows:

  • Up to $100,000 first offense, individual
  • Up to $200,000 first offense, organization
  • Up to $250,000 second offense, individual
  • Up to $500,000 second offense, organization

These criminal fines may also include up to a year of jail time for first offenders and up to two years for second offenders.

In addition to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, other federal laws such as the Eagle Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act also prohibit tampering with eagles. Many states and local authorities have also issued laws to protect bald eagles. 

Why is it Illegal to Kill a Bald Eagle?

why is it illegal to kill a bald eagle

Aside from the bald eagle being the national bird, you may be wondering, why are all the protections in place? Why are the punishments so steep?

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the Bald Eagle Protection Act came into effect in 1940, and in 1962, it was amended to include golden eagles as well. At that time, the primary purpose was to protect both eagle species from extinction.

Eagles were once hunted to endangerment, much like any other predatory species. Some were used for taxidermy and other display purposes, some were shot for encroaching on populated areas and disturbing local livestock, while many others were unintentionally killed due to pesticide poisoning. 

Since the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was put in place, both bald and golden eagles have made an impressive comeback. Though both species are no longer considered endangered, the Act has been left in place, and as such, it is still illegal to kill them. 

Check out this video to learn more about the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and why it came into being.

Do You Go to Jail if You Kill a Bald Eagle?

As you noticed above, jail time is a possible penalty of killing a bald eagle or otherwise breaching the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. But whether or not you will end up serving time after killing a bald eagle is not so cut and dried.

Each bald eagle killing is reviewed on an individual basis in court. An accidental killing that can be proven as such may lead to heavy fines without jail time, while a more suspicious case may lead to both heavy fines and time behind bars. 

Your ability to pay the fines may also determine whether you end up in jail and for how long.

Again, it all depends on the individual case and what is determined in court.

Can I Keep an Eagle Feather I Found?

No. Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, it is illegal to take or disturb any eagle or eagle parts. Strange as it may seem, this includes eagle feathers that you find laying on the ground.

The exception is any recognized member of a Native American tribe covered under the Tribal Member Use of Feathers or Other Parts of Federally Protected Birds Policy. These tribal members will not be prosecuted for collecting lost or molted feathers they may find in the wild.

For anyone not covered by this policy, it’s okay to take pictures of eagle feathers or to simply enjoy looking at them while out in nature, as long as you leave the feather where you found it. If you want to be able to keep the feather, you will have to obtain a federal permit.


Killing a bald eagle is a serious offense in the United States. Even an accidental killing may lead to time spent behind bars or having to pay a steep fine.

11 thoughts on “What Happens If You Kill A Bald Eagle?”

      • Or a windfarm. Former Pres. Obama added another 1,000 eagles allowed to be killed, so that is now a total of 5,000 bald eagles who are allowed to be killed by wind turbines before they are even considered for fines and no jailtime for sure. I hate this planet many days the month.

  1. We have just bought a house in Nebraska close to the Missouri River. Across the river is Iowa. There is a line of trees there that have lost all of their leaves and you can see the huge eagles nest. We get so much joy from watching them. Two day’s ago they set the whole place on fire because they either are planning on building something or they just wanted to get rid of the debris. They did not burn the trees down but we haven’t seen the eagles come back to their nest since then. The smoke was so dark over there and we could smell it for two days. What happens if those eagles had eggs? Now we cannot see them because they no longer go to that nest. What to do. Those people over there that did that should be fined for disturbing those magnificent birds. I am over in Plattsmouth NE right below Omaha.

    • Yes, you are correct! Double standard. Wind farms are now allowed to kill 5,000 bald eagles before they are fined for even 1 death.

    • This is not true. 1) There is no such country as “Hondorus.” 2) In Nebraska in February 2023, two Hondurans migrants killed a bald eagle, intending to eat it. They were cited for unlawful possession of the eagle. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had opened an investigation into that incident.

      The federal government has apparently been very busy AT THE SAME TIME trying to prosecute two OTHER men who killed 3,600 protected eagles and sold their parts on the black market.

      Saying it’s okay for illegal migrants to kill eagles is a complete, deliberate distortion of fact.

  2. Funny how in this country it’s illegal to disturb eagle eggs it’s not only legal but a human right to abort an unborn human baby. Go figure.


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