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In early March 2023, Murphy, a bald eagle at the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Missouri, began to spend his entire day sitting on a makeshift nest inside his aviary. The behavior was not unusual in itself. Male bald eagles always help females during the incubation process. However, in this case, the 31-year-old bird was trying to hatch a rock!
Over the next few weeks, Murphy became increasingly protective of his "offspring." He would screech at his fellow bald eagles if they came close to the nest. To avoid any confrontation, Murphy was moved to a separate enclosure on April 4, 2023.
That same week, bird rescuers brought an eaglet into the sanctuary. The young bird had been stranded on the ground after a windstorm destroyed its nest. The sanctuary staff wanted to bond it with an eagle rather than a human. This would allow them to release the bird back into the wild when it was ready. Since Murphy was already showing paternal instincts, it made perfect sense to pair the eaglet with him.
Dawn Griffard, CEO of World Bird Sanctuary, told The Washington Post, "He was already showing the hormonal aspects of raising a chick. And he was taking such good care of his rock that we decided that he would be our best bet."
The caretakers began by placing the eaglet in a small cage and putting it inside Murphy's enclosure. They also removed his pretend egg. Murphy did not display any aggressive behavior, and the eaglet was released from its cage after a few days.
That same morning, caretakers left a whole fish for Murphy and one cut in chunks for the eaglet. When they returned, Murphy's fish had been torn apart and devoured. But the pieces left for the eaglet were untouched. A closer examination revealed that the eaglet's crop — the area under its chin where food is stored — was full. It was clear that Murphy had embraced his role as stepdad and fed the chick!
Staff members will now train the eaglet to fly and hunt. If all goes well, they will release the bird back into the wild by the summer. But those concerned about how Murphy will feel when that happens need not worry.
"There is a point where eagle parents know that it's time for the chick to leave," Griffard told The Washington Post. "And they almost kick the chick out of the nest. So, he'll know."
Resources: Washingtonpost.com, Smithsonianmag.com, worldbirdsanctuary.org