On March 8, 2023, a male bald eagle named Murphy at the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis County, Missouri, was spotted by a keeper, exhibiting an unusual behavior of guarding a depression in the ground decorated with leaves, branches, and a rock.
Murphy sat on the rock, behaving as though he was incubating an egg. The bird became protective of the rock and would scream and charge at any other bird that came close to it. The keepers put up a sign to reassure visitors that Murphy was not sick or in distress, but instead was incubating a rock.
Male bald eagles are known to share in nesting and baby-raising, so Murphy’s behavior was not entirely surprising, but it was not typical to see such a behavior directed towards a rock. At 31 years old, Murphy was an elderly bird, and while he took his role as a foster parent seriously, he had never raised a chick before.
The sanctuary staff decided to introduce a chick to Murphy to see if he would foster it. They found an eaglet at the sanctuary’s wildlife hospital who had survived a fall when its aerie was blown down by high winds. The staff began feeding the eaglet and wearing a camouflage suit and holding an eagle stuffy to prevent the bird from imprinting on humans.
They introduced the eaglet to Murphy by first placing it in a heated, comfy cage made of wood and wire, called the “baby jail,” which allowed some interaction between the birds. Eventually, the eaglet was released, and Murphy approached it with curiosity, displaying nurturing behavior.
The sanctuary staff announced that Murphy had fed the eaglet and people were delighted with the news. The story had captured the hearts of many, and people began suggesting ways to help Murphy become a real dad, such as replacing the rock with a real egg or getting him a mate.
However, the staff explained that such suggestions were not feasible or safe for the birds involved. Murphy’s behavior demonstrated how male bald eagles could be nurturing parents, even if their instincts were directed towards a rock, and how they could adapt to become foster parents for another bird species.