We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know that families come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s true for wildlife too! Meet Valor I, Valor II and Starr, a breeding trio of bald eagles that live along the Mississippi River in Illinois. For several years, fans from all over the world have been watching this nontraditional family through a webcam as the eagles deal with the trials and tribulations of parenting.
Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the public’s understanding and enjoyment of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, began the webcam project in 2011. Over the years, the friends group based in Thomson, Illinois has built a fanbase for the eagles, with thousands of people tuning in throughout the course of the breeding season.
History of the trio
Having more than two birds assist with feeding and rearing young isn’t all that uncommon, but it is interesting to see that these males seem to prefer the teamwork approach to raising a family. The original trio formed in 2013 after the female chose a new mate. Even though the original male, known as Valor I, had been replaced by a new male, known as Valor II, he hung around the nest throughout the breeding season and was assumed to be engaged in the nest. It wasn’t until 2016 that the friends group and refuge staff were able to document that cooperative nesting was indeed taking place. In March of 2017, family dynamics changed dramatically when Hope, the female named by her devoted fans, was killed by another eagle.
The current nesting female, known as Starr, arrived on the scene later in September and successfully laid two eggs in mid-February 2018 with support from the two males. While both of the eggs hatched, only one of the eaglets successfully fledged. The other fledging died from unknown causes about three weeks after hatching. In 2019, the trio had a remarkable year. Starr laid three eggs and all three eaglets successfully fledged!
Their story of success and challenges continued into 2020. On Valentine's Day, Starr laid her first egg. A second egg followed three days later. Both eggs hatched in late March and both juveniles successfully fledged by mid-June. On August 10, a derecho brought hurricane force winds reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour. Unfortunately, these high winds toppled the trio's nest and the eagle cam. Thankfully, the two eaglets had fledged prior to the storm and the trio was able to take cover and were not injured. The trio immediately began building a new nest in the same neighborhood across the slough from the old nest.
Rebuilding in 2021
After high winds took the nest, the trio immediately began rebuilding their nest in a new tree nearby. Staff were able to reposition the eagle cam on the old tree, providing a glimpse of the nest from about 100 yards away. The trio's behavior has suggested that Starr laid her first egg on February 15, 2021. Two to three eggs are typical, but we all had to had to watch and wait for hatchlings to pop their heads above the nest cup later in the summer. While everyone waited, viewers from all around the world watched as the trio continued taking shifts to incubate. During any given shift change at the nest, the relieving adult landed in the nest and nudged the incubator to take over duties. When nudging didn’t work, the relieving eagle used more aggressive tactics, like walking on the tail feathers or back of the unrelenting incubator. If still no movement, the bird snuggled against the incubator, waiting for an attitude change. By mid-June, three eaglets fledged, and the family had a successful nesting season.
An uncertain 2022 is unfolding
The eagle trio has historically been early nesters and this year has been no exception, with incubation of eggs starting on February 23, 2022. While incubation continued for a few weeks, things changed on the afternoon of March 18, when the trio abruptly stopped incubating and left the nest. The trio continues to visit the nest intermittently, providing anticipation by fans that they may make a second attempt this year. Renesting efforts are often successful, but typically produce fewer eggs. At this point in the season, it’s too soon to tell if the eagles will successfully raise young this year.
Only time will tell what happens next for this unique family. Learn more about Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and plan your visit today!