On March 8, 2023, a keeper at World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis County, Missouri, noticed something odd. A male bald eagle named Murphy was guarding what appeared to be a large depression in the ground.
“The spot was sparsely but carefully decorated with leaves and branches, and featured a simple rock right in the center,” the nature preserve shared on its Facebook page.
Murphy began sitting on the rock, nudging it and becoming fiercely protective of it, as it if were an egg. People visiting the sanctuary would inquire about the bald eagle just sitting there, wondering if he was okay. The keepers finally put up a sign that read:
“If you see an eagle lying down in the back left corner under a perch, that’s Murphy! Murphy is not hurt, sick, or otherwise in distress. He has built a nest on the ground, and is very carefully incubating a rock! We wish him the best of luck!”
In case you’re wondering if this is unusual behavior for a 31-year-old male bald eagle, the answer is “not really, but….” Male bald eagles do share equally in nesting and baby-raising, so the paternal instinct part is normal. Murphy’s channeling of that instinct onto a rock…maybe not so much. And at 31, he’s more like a great-granddad than dad, as bald eagles usually live 20 to 30 years in the wild (though they do live longer in captivity).
Murphy takes fatherhood seriously, though. Soon he began screaming and charging at the four other eagles in the aviary if they came anywhere near RockBaby. (That’s the official name the keepers gave Murphy’s…well, rock baby.) Naturally, the screaming and charging caused a fair amount of stress for all involved, so Murphy and RockBaby were moved to their own enclosure for everyone’s protection.
People who saw this unfold started suggesting sanctuary staff replace Murphy’s rock with a real egg or get him a mate, but 1) Eagle eggs aren’t just lying around waiting to be given to wanna-be dads, 2) hatching a different kind of bird’s egg would be potentially dangerous for it, and 3) Murphy had two females right there in the aviary, and none of them were interested in each other. Alas, the heart cannot be forced.
However, a different opportunity presented itself in late March when an aerie with two chicks in it was blown down by high winds. One chick didn’t survive the fall, but the other was brought to World Bird Sanctuary’s Wildlife Hospital.
A bit bruised, but otherwise healthy, the chick was given a good prognosis. Staff began feeding it while wearing a camouflage suit and holding an eagle stuffy to prevent the eaglet from imprinting on humans. What the baby really needed was a foster parent—an adult eagle who would feed and care for it.
“Murphy’s dad instincts were already in high gear,” the sanctuary wrote on April 11, “but at 31 years old, he had never raised a chick before. It’s definitely a gamble, but also the chick’s best chance.”
Introducing an eaglet to an adult eagle isn’t as simple as dropping it in the enclosure. First, the eaglet is put into what the sanctuary refers to as a “baby jail,” which is a heated, comfy cage made of wood and wire that protects the eaglet but still allows some interaction between the birds so they can get used to one another. Once the desired bonding behavior is observed, then they try out some direct one-on-one interaction without the cage.
On April 12, World Bird Sanctuary announced, “IT’S HAPPENING!!!!”
The eaglet (referred to as Bald Eaglet 23-126—they don’t name foster babies at the sanctuary for superstitious reasons) was released from baby jail, and after an hour or so Murphy approached it with curiosity. Was he wondering if his RockBaby had hatched? Maybe. Would he be the nurturing dad everyone hoped he would be? It appears so.
As the sanctuary shared:
“This morning, Murphy got his chance to be a full parent as 23-126 left the nest to go be closer to Murphy. The food is being dropped through a blind drop tube into the nest and baby appears unable to be able to get over the lip to get back into the nest to get the chopped food. When we checked back, we found that baby was still out of the nest and all the chopped food was still in the nest. However, Murphy’s whole fish had been removed from the nest and baby had a full crop. 23-126 is not yet old enough to tear food which means MURPHY FED THE BABY!!!!”
The comments on the update, of course, are pure gold as people have become fully invested in this story:
“I can’t believe I’m crying over eagles!”
“Murphy’s going to be giving a TedTalk: Manifest The Eaglet You Need In Your Life.”
“So happy for Murphy & eaglet Dwayne (the rock Johnson).”
“‘Rock, I am your Father.'”
“Omg I’m crying! Murphy never gave up on his rock and now has a baby of his very own The wonders of nature never cease. Ty, WBS, for making this possible. These two are saving each other .”
Many people have lamented that there is not a live cam so we can all watch this pair as their relationship develops, but staff reminded everyone that the sanctuary is out in the middle of the woods and they don’t have a strong enough signal for a live stream.
But WBS staff has been posting updates on social media and will share the story as it continues to unfold. Follow World Bird Sanctuary on Facebook here. And if you feel compelled to donate to help feed little Dwayne or 23-126 or whatever you’d like to call Murphy’s new baby—who apparently eats a ridiculous amount—you can donate here or check out their Amazon baby registry (yes, seriously!) here.
Congratulations, Papa Murphy!
This article originally appeared on 4.14.23