Proof that families come in all shapes, sizes and species, three eagles — two dads and a mom — are raising three, fluffy-feathered eaglets in a nest near the Mississippi River this spring.
According to the Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge, all three birds, Valor I, Valor II (dads) and Starr (mom), “take part in nest maintenance, incubation and raising the young.”
The refuge hosts a live webcam of the Illinois family, which is a rare example of an eagle trio cooperatively nesting, raising young together. While not unheard of, such trios have been documented only a few times, according to the National Audubon Society: in Alaska in 1977, in Minnesota in 1983 and in California in 1992.
What might make this all-American family different is that both males are copulating with the mom, whereas earlier examples of a second dad may have been live-in nanny situations, with no role in the reproduction itself, Audubon reports.
Domestic life in this nest was in turmoil before Valor II arrived, and it has been only two years since the dad duo lost their first partner, Hope.
When Hope and Valor I began nesting at this location, Valor I “wasn’t a very good partner or father,” Audubon wrote. “He was irresponsible about incubating the eggs and feeding the eaglets, which were really his only two jobs.”
“Normally they will switch roles, but what happened was Hope would sit on the nest for a long, long time,” Pam Steinhaus, the visitor services manager at the refuge, told Audubon. “Valor I would never bring food in, so she’d have to get up and leave to hunt.”
He would hang out on the nest for 10 minutes — then get up and fly away. Which is probably why everyone in the nest was cool with Valor II stepping up.
“I think Hope didn’t care for what Valor I was doing, so he got replaced,” Steinhaus told Audubon.
Even after Valor II moved in, Valor I stayed. By 2016, the trio was “cooperatively nesting.” Even Valor I was contributing, apparently motivated by his new male counterpart.
But the happy nest didn’t last long, with Hope disappearing in a true-crime, Unsolved Mysteries kind of way.
The dads lost their first partner when two other male eagles attacked their nest. It was all captured on video and documented by the Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge.
On the evening of March 24, 2017, the stewards wrote, two adult eagles attacked the trio’s nest. The attack lasted for more than an hour, they say, and video “shows two adult eagles battling on the ground in a desperate talon clinching struggle.”
When the dust settled, Hope was gone — vanished without a trace.
“The searchers found no sign of Hope nor of feathers on the ground where the struggle occurred,” the stewards wrote. Two days later, the nest was again attacked by two eagles (unclear whether it was the same pair).
“Valor I and Valor II boldly defended the chicks and prevented the marauding eagles from entering the nest and no injuries were observed,” the stewards wrote. “Daily attacks occurred throughout April with an occasional flyby in May.”
That story has a bittersweet ending — the dads continued to raise their kids together, without Hope. The eaglets fledged at the end of May. The dads chose to stay together and found a new partner in Starr that fall. They’ve been with her ever since.
Starr laid three eggs this year that hatched in March. The kids are expected to fledge in the next several weeks.