This spring’s hottest drama has everything: a deadbeat father, a love triangle, murder, redemption and lots and lots of freshwater fish. But the excitement isn’t unfolding on cable television, it’s streaming live from a webcam set up on a stretch of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge in Illinois where a rare trio of bald eagles successfully hatched three puffy chicks in early April.
Ally Hirschlag at Audubon reports that a female bald eagle named Starr and her two paramours, Valor I and Valor II, are currently tending to three hatchlings in their stick nest overlooking the Mississippi near Lock and Dam 13 in Fulton, Illinois. Hundreds of bird species are known to use “helpers,” single birds that hang around a mated pair and help carry food to young or incubate eggs. But the phenomenon is extremely rare in bald eagles, which are monogamous, mate for life and highly territorial.
A study from the 1990s documented bald eagle trios in Alaska, Minnesota and Santa Catalina Island in California in which a third bird helped incubate eggs and feed hatchlings. But this trio is different because the two male eagles, Valor I and Valor II, have stuck together, even inviting a new female eagle into their bromance when their original partner was killed.
The saga begins in 2012, reports Michelle Lou and Brandon Griggs at CNN. That’s when Hope and her mate Valor I first appeared on a webcam operated by the Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge. The eagles soon had eggs in the nest. But Valor proved to be a negligent father.
“Normally they will switch roles, but what happened was Hope would sit on the nest for a long, long time,” Pam Steinhaus, the Wildlife Refuge’s visitor services manager tells Hirschlag. “Valor I would never bring food in, so she’d have to get up and leave to hunt.”
When Hope was away, Valor would sit on the nest for 10 minutes or so before hopping off. Because it was a warm winter, the eggs hatched, but the chicks didn’t last long; they died before fledging.
During the 2013 nesting season, a new bird joined the cast. Valor II began hanging around the nest and soon took Valor I’s spot without much of a fight. That year, Hope and Valor II fledged chicks, while Valor I hung around the nest site, looking on.
Camera issues made it difficult to track the trio in 2014 and 2015. When the camera was fixed in 2016, viewers found that the eagle throuple had become a well-oiled, co-parenting machine. All three birds took turns building and managing the nest, incubating the eggs and hunting to feed the young.
In March 2017, however, tragedy struck while the trio was tending to two eaglets. Hope was attacked by other eagles and eventually disappeared from the nest cam. It’s likely the attack killed her or she was so severely injured that another predator picked her off. The boys, however, stepped up, feeding and protecting the eaglets until they fledged.
In September 2017, Starr soared into the lives of the male eagles and the three were seen fixing and tidying up the nest. In 2018, they produced two eaglets, though one died. This year, the trio hatched three eaglets, all of which currently appear healthy and should be ready to fledge in a few weeks. It’s possible that the eagles are fathered by both Valor I and Valor II since each were seen mating with Starr.
Steinhaus tells CNN that while Starr did most of the egg incubation, the male eagles forced her to take a break. “The boys are right there to remove her and sit on the eggs,” she says.
Now that the eaglets are feeding, Valor I and Valor II have taken on their share of the hunting as well. “The pantry is constantly full. Food is never going to be an issue,” Steinhaus adds.
Why Valor I and Valor II have maintained the avian throuple is unknown. It’s particularly perplexing because bald eagles are extremely territorial, says Robyn Bailey, NestWatch project leader at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. Bailey tells Audubon’s Hirschlag that Valor I must be benefitting from the situation, perhaps through an “increased likelihood of his offspring surviving.”
Steinhaus says that eagles have a strong bond with successful nesting sites, so Valor I and Valor II may remain civil because both are attached to the nest they used to share with Hope. As long as the trio keeps producing successful fledglings, she says, the drama will likely continue.