A caretaker at the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis County, Missouri, noticed something strange on March 8, 2023. An apparent big pit in the earth was being guarded by a male bald eagle named Murphy.
The wildlife preserve posted about the location on its Facebook page: “The spot was sparsely but skillfully decorated with leaves and branches, and featured a simple rock right in the center.”
Murphy started to lean against the rock, prod it, and get ferociously protective of it as though it were an egg. People who came to the sanctuary would ask about the bald eagle who was just sitting there and if he was alright. Finally, the caretakers erected a sign that read:
“If you see an eagle curled up under a perch in the back left corner, that’s Murphy! Murphy is not ill, injured, or in any other kind of suffering. He’s made a nest out of rocks on the ground and is very meticulously incubating one of them. We wish him luck!”
If you’re wondering whether this is unusual behavior for a male bald eagle who is 31 years old, the response is “not really, but. The paternal instinct part is typical because male bald eagles participate equally in nesting and raising young. Maybe not so much Murphy’s application of that instinct to a rock. And since bald eagles typically live 20 to 30 years in the wild (though they do live longer in captivity), at age 31, he is more like a great-grandfather than a father.
Murphy, however, takes fatherhood seriously. As soon as any of the other four eagles in the aviary approached RockBaby, he started yelling and charging at them. (That’s what the keepers officially called Murphy’s rock baby.) Murphy and RockBaby were relocated to their own enclosure for everyone’s safety because the screaming and charging naturally generated quite a bit of stress for everyone involved.
People who witnessed this event began suggesting that sanctuary staff replace Murphy’s rock with a real egg or find him a mate. However, 1) eagle eggs aren’t just lying around waiting to be given to wannabe dads, 2) hatching a different kind of bird’s egg could be dangerous for it, and 3) Murphy already had two females in the aviary, and they weren’t attracted to each other. Sadly, one cannot make the heart beat.
Late in March, however, a different chance arose when two chicks were inside an aerie, which was destroyed by strong winds. While one chick did not survive the fall, the other was taken to the wildlife hospital at World Bird Sanctuary.
The chick was given a favorable prognosis despite being slightly injured and otherwise healthy. In order to keep the eaglet from imprinting on people, staff started feeding it while donning camouflage gear and holding an eagle stuffed animal. The infant actually needed a foster parent—an adult eagle who would take care of it and feed it.
However, at the age of 31, Murphy had never raised a chick. “Murphy’s dad instincts were already in high gear,” the sanctuary reported on April 11. It’s undoubtedly a gamble, but it’s also the girl’s best opportunity.
It takes more than just throwing an eaglet into the container to introduce it to an adult eagle. The eaglet is first placed in a “baby jail,” which the sanctuary refers to as a heated, comfortable cage constructed of wood and wire that protects the eaglet while still allowing some interaction between the birds so they can become acquainted to one another. They try some direct one-on-one connection outside of the cage when the desired bonding behavior has been seen.
World Bird Sanctuary declared “IT’S HAPPENING!!!!” on April 12.
After being released from baby jail, the eaglet (known as Bald Eaglet 23-126; the sanctuary doesn’t name foster infants due to superstitious reasons) was approached by Murphy with curiosity. Was he pondering the status of his RockBaby? Maybe. Would he be the loving father that everyone expected him to be? It would seem so.
According to the sanctuary:
“Murphy had his chance to be a full dad this morning when 23-126 exited the nest to go be near Murphy. Baby doesn’t seem to be able to climb over the lip to return to the nest to retrieve the chopped food that is being thrown into it through a blind drop tube. When we went back, the youngster was still outside the nest, and the nest still had all of the chopped food. Murphy’s entire fish had been taken out of the nest, though, and the youngster had a complete crop. Because 23-126 is still too young to chew food, MURPHY FED THE BABY.
The comments on the update, of course, are pure gold as people have become fully invested in this story