An unconventional family of bald eagles in Illinois have become an internet sensation.
Two males and one female are nesting together and raising three eaglets along the Upper Mississippi River near Fulton, Ill., and thousands of people are watching online through a webcam livestream.
“The current birds in the nest have all mated together at one point or another, so they’re in an actual intimate relationship together and they all share parenting duties,” reporter Ally Hirschlag, who wrote about the birds for the National Audubon Society conservation group, told As It Happens host Carol Off.
“They all feed the babies. They all sit on the nest. They guard the babies. They take turns. It’s actually very civilized.”
But it’s been a long road to this peaceful balance. The family has had its share of turbulence — and even tragedy — in the past.
Unhappy couple becomes a thriving throuple
It all began in 2012, when a female named Hope and a male named Valor I began nesting at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge.
“Valor I didn’t seem to quite understand his role as a parent,” Hirschlag said. “He wasn’t that committed to it.”
He regularly failed to bring home food for the eaglets and he often abandoned them when the mother was off hunting to make up for his neglect.
Without the help of both parents, the eaglets didn’t make it.
“I don’t know if they can have actual squabbles about it, but she did something rather pragmatic and she found a new mate who seemed to be much better at being a parent,” Hirschlag said.
Watch a livestream of the eagles in action:
Enter Valor II.
“He actually seemed to get it. He was very good at, you know, doing all of the gestational, and once the babies were born, taking care of them, feeding them, protecting them,” Hirschlag said.
“But Valor I never left. He sort of was just around.”
The eaglets Hope raised with Valor II thrived and eventually left the nest — and Valor I seemed to pick up a few parenting lessons from Valor II.
By 2016, both males had been observed mating with Hope and all three of them hatched a new nest of eaglets together — this time sharing in the parenting duties equally.
A sudden loss
The bald eagle trio had finally found their groove when tragedy struck in March 2017.
They were raising two freshly hatched eaglets together when two other eagles began attacking the nest. After a long and brutal assault that lasted several days, Hope is believed to have been killed.
“The two males stayed and fended off the marauding eagles and took care of the babies until they fledged,” Hirschlag said.
Pam Steinhaus, the visitor services manager at the refuge, told the Audubon Society: “It was amazing how they got together and did what dads do.”
Eagles usually mate for life, and when a bird’s mate dies, they find a new one.
But rather than split up in search of new females to mate with, Valor I and Valor II stayed together in their nest.
Soon enough, they attracted a new female to their family.
Like Hope before her, Starr has been seen mating with both Valor I and Valor II. The trio hatched three eaglets this spring.
How rare is this?
Eagle trios like this are believed to be rare — but scientists don’t know for sure.
A handful of other cases have been documented, but researchers had assumed they were made up of two biological parents and a relative known as a “nest helper” — a phenomenon observed across several bird species.
But Robyn Bailey, NestWatch project leader at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, told the National Audubon Society that we don’t always get such an intimate view of eagle mating habits that the refuge’s webcam provides.
“Just because something is not commonly seen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t commonly occur,” Bailey said.
Starr and her Valors have a lot of fans. When she laid her first two eggs in March, the livestream had approximately 39,000 views from over 60 countries.
“Ever since I wrote the piece — actually, while I was researching the piece, even — I’ve had them up on my desktop almost all the time,” Hirschlag said.
“It’s a comfort to have them there. I’m not sure why, but I’m looking at them right now.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Ally Hirschlag produced by Sarah Jackson.
This story originally appeared on CBC