In a tall tree situated on the Mississippi River in Fulton, Illinois, three eagles, a female and two males, are looking after three downy eaglets—keeping them warm, feeding them freshly caught catfish, and herding them away from the edge of the nest. The three parents take turns hunting and nest-sitting, often calling to one another for assistance.
Bald Eagles aren't a rare sight at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, but three of them tending to the same nest is, especially when the trio includes two males, which are typically territorial. What’s even more remarkable is that the males stayed together and courted a new female after their first mate perished.
Why and how the two males tolerate one another isn’t known, nor is the parentage of the chicks. But the young are certainly benefitting from the extra set of eyes and talons keeping watch and taking care.
Life in this nest wasn’t always so supportive. In 2012, when the original pair—Valor I (male) and Hope (female)—began nesting at Lock and Dam 13 on the Mississippi River, Valor I wasn’t a very good partner or father. He was irresponsible about incubating the eggs and feeding the eaglets, which were really his only two jobs. (The whole affair has been livestreamed on a webcam installed in 2011 by the nonprofit Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge.)
“Normally they will switch roles, but what happened was Hope would sit on the nest for a long, long time,” says Pam Steinhaus, the visitor services manager at the refuge. “Valor I would never bring food in, so she’d have to get up and leave to hunt.” While she was gone, he’d sit on the nest for maybe 10 minutes before getting up and abandoning his offspring.
Because of this behavior, observers didn’t think the eggs would even hatch. They did, likely thanks to a warm winter, but Valor I’s continued negligence led to both eaglets perishing before they fledged.
Valor I’s lack of commitment and knowhow was impeding the couple’s ability to successfully reproduce. Then, as if in response to their struggles, a second male, subsequently named Valor II, showed up on the refuge webcam in the fall of 2013. At first, he kept his distance, perching on the edge of the nest or a nearby branch. Before long, though, he appeared to usurp Valor I as Hope’s main partner. “I think Hope didn’t care for what Valor I was doing, so he got replaced,” Steinhaus speculates. Valor I didn’t seem to mind. He stayed near the nest and wasn’t seen contributing to egg-incubation or eaglet-raising. “He was still around but not actively involved,” she says. Two eaglets successfully fledged that year. Though it’s unclear who fathered them, Valor II is the more likely parent because Valor I wasn’t seen caring for the eaglets or mating with Hope.
Over the next two years, all three adult eagles were observed around the nest, though due to camera issues it was difficult to see how the adults interacted. Not until 2016 did refuge biologists have clear documentation of cooperative nesting, with both Valor I and Valor II assuming nest-building, incubation, and feeding duties. That was also the first year Hope was seen mating with both males. It seems it took Valor I three years to learn how to parent.
There was a relatable quality to how the trio worked together. “The boys would put sticks in the nest, but they never put them in the right spot,” Steinhaus says. “Hope was always replacing sticks in the spots where she wanted them to go.”
Just as the trio had figured out how to successfully co-parent, in late March 2017, after two eaglets had hatched, two unknown eagles began attacking the nest. “It was a continuous attack, day after day after day,” Steinhaus recalls. “Hope fought. She was in a struggle, and she probably got severely injured. We never found her.” Valor I and II also fought off the offending eagles and kept the eaglets safe without sustaining injuries.
After Hope likely perished, Valor I and Valor II refused to leave the eaglets. Both males resumed their parental duties—taking turns sitting on the nest, and feeding and guarding the young. “The two boys, man, they stepped it up, and raised those two to fledge,” Steinhaus says. “It was amazing how they got together and did what dads do.”
Like many raptor species, Bald Eagles mate for life, and when their mate dies, they don’t hesitate to seek out a new one. However, it is unusual for two males to choose to stay together rather than splitting off and finding their own mates. They’re extremely territorial so it’s “less clear why the original male is so tolerant,” says Robyn Bailey, NestWatch Project Leader at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. “He must be deriving benefits as well, such as increased likelihood of his offspring surviving.”
Having an extra parent around may boost the chicks’ survival—though Steinhaus believes that the males are bonded more to the nest than to each other. “They tend to site fidelity,” she says. “Once they have successful nesting going on, they will stay there.”
Sure enough, their prime real estate soon drew in a new female with dark feathers on her head. She was spotted collecting nesting materials with the two Valors in September 2017, often noted as a bonding ritual; webcam fans named her Starr. That spring, there were two eaglets in the nest. One died after a month, and though the other fledged early, it was eventually seen in the area doing just fine.
This year, they’ve produced three eggs that all hatched by the first of April.
While uncommon, Bald Eagle trios have been documented before. For example, they were observed in Alaska in 1977, in Minnesota in 1983, and in California in 1992. In those cases, however, it was unclear whether all three eagles were biological parents, or if one was just a “nest helper.” Refuge biologists don’t know for sure whether Valor I and Valor II have both fathered eaglets in this case, but based on the mating they’ve observed, the odds are good.
“Nest helpers” are more common in other species, such as Western Bluebirds, Brown-headed Nuthatches, and American Crows, but in most cases they’re relatives of the main couple and not an active partner. That said, “just because something is not commonly seen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t commonly occur,” Bailey says.
Trio relationships may not be the Bald Eagle norm, but in this case, it’s resulted in several healthy, thriving eaglets and extra attention on a well-deserving wildlife refuge. Their webcam audience grew markedly over the past few years: This March, when the first two eggs were laid, it had approximately 7,200 online visitors and 39,000 views from over 60 countries. Steinhaus, for one, isn’t taking the phenomenon for granted.
“We feel like it’s a pretty special nest,” she says, “and hope it stays here for a long time.”