AdvertisementSupported byGuest EssayBy Margaret RenklMs. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.NASHVILLE — When Murphy, a bald eagle, began to spend all his time sitting on the ground in his enclosure at the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Mo., in March, visitors were worried.
Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.
NASHVILLE — When Murphy, a bald eagle, began to spend all his time sitting on the ground in his enclosure at the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Mo., in March, visitors were worried. Owing to an injury in his youth, Murphy can’t fly, but he’d always been able to walk, to hop, to climb onto low perches in the aviary. Why was he suddenly huddling on the ground and squawking at any birds who ventured near?
Was he hurt? Sick? Bald eagles are particularly vulnerable to the avian flu now sweeping the country. Sanctuary staff members got so many questions that they put up a sign on the eagle enclosure explaining that Murphy was neither ill nor newly injured. Murphy was preparing to be a dad.
The internet has been besotted with this eagle since he decided to incubate a rock.
Murphy was devoted to RockBaby, as followers on social media immediately dubbed the not-at-all-egg-shaped rock, and very serious about his parental responsibilities. He carefully rotated RockBaby exactly as he would have rotated a real egg, making sure the heat from his own body was evenly distributed. He became so protective of his darling rock, expanding the no-fly perimeter he had established around his rudimentary nest so much that sanctuary staffers finally moved Murphy and RockBaby to a separate space to give their four aviarymates a little peace.
Murphy would have abandoned RockBaby once the hormone surge of nesting season subsided. But then an orphan bald eagle chick arrived at the sanctuary. The eaglet was at most two weeks old, still young enough to imprint on a new caregiver. The internet was filled with hope: Here was Murphy’s chance!
Parental hormones are powerful drivers of nurturing behavior, and foster parenting is not an uncommon way for animal rescue organizations to manage orphaned animals. Just last month, the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Michigan reported that its staff was caring for a stray dog who adopted an orphaned kitten and folded it into her litter of puppies. I once took an orphaned deer mouse to a nearby wildlife rehabilitator, and she cautiously introduced it to a nursing house mouse who was also in her care. The mouse accepted the baby stranger of another species and raised it as her own.
Even in the wild, there are documented instances of what appears to be interspecies adoption — a killer whale raising a pilot whale calf, a southern right whale raising a baby humpback, a lioness raising a leopard cub. One of my favorite online videos captures a male cardinal feeding gaping-mouthed goldfish in a backyard pond. This behavior doesn’t appear to be common, but of course these are only the cases that human beings happen to have come across.
Even among these stories, Murphy is an unusual case. At 31, he has never formed a pair bond with either of the female eagles in his enclosure. He has never built a nest, never raised young. Plus, RockBaby wasn’t gaping for food or crying for help in that impossible-to-ignore way of needy babies everywhere. RockBaby wasn’t even animate. When I first heard this story, it reminded me of my high school pet, a cockatiel who chose my younger sister’s teddy bear as its mate. When my sister attempted to reclaim her toy, the bird tried to bite her.
The sanctuary was confronting a dilemma. An orphaned eagle chick raised by an adult eagle learns behaviors it can’t easily learn otherwise, but it was impossible to know whether Murphy was ready, with no prior experience, to be a true parent. What if he considered the eaglet a threat to RockBaby? What if he considered the eaglet a form of prey?
But the staffers decided to give him a shot. “It was kind of like, how can we not do this?” Dawn Griffard, the chief executive of the sanctuary, told The Times’s Livia Albeck-Ripka. “How can we not give him a chance?”
So they put the chick in a small heated cage and installed it in Murphy’s enclosure to keep the baby safe while Murphy investigated. They also took advantage of the distraction to remove RockBaby. After a few days of through-the-bars introduction, they released the eaglet from “baby jail,” and Murphy instantly took to watching over the baby. His baby.
The internet erupted in joy. Donations poured in. (To donate to the sanctuary, click here.) Murphy-branded T-shirts flew out of the World Bird Sanctuary’s online store.
Admittedly, this experiment has not been an unqualified success. Only once has Murphy actually fed the eaglet, whose meals still consist of bite-size food delivered through a tube by sanctuary staff. And after a tornado touched down near the sanctuary, staff members returned to find that Murphy had made no effort to shelter the eaglet, who was wet, hypothermic and in shock. After a night in the bird hospital, the chick was in much better shape and was later returned to Murphy — more role model than caregiver, as it turns out, but even so a crucial part of the eaglet’s training for the wild.
It’s possible to argue that Murphy’s story is an example of the way biological cues can be scrambled for an animal living in very unnatural conditions. But it is also possible to recognize it as an example of the individuality that exists within species. None of the other eagles in Murphy’s aviary wanted to be parents badly enough to try to hatch a rock, but Murphy did.
There are many stories of animals behaving outside what we think of as the norm, and we have only to open our eyes to discover them. YouTube is full of videos of wild animals at play — like the crow sledding down a snowy rooftop and the eagles playing golf — and there’s almost always one backyard squirrel who figures out how to unlock the squirrel-proof bird feeder and one turtle or lizard who decides for no good reason to hang out nearby.
We fail the creatures with whom we share our ecosystems when we believe that only we are unique, that only we move through the world as individuals, while our wild neighbors are nothing more than bundles of hormones driven by instinct, with none of the originality that distinctly individual beings are capable of. Understanding this truth may be a crucial first step in convincing humanity that wild animals and the habitats that support them have an equal claim to what’s left of the fragile natural world.
As a species, we may be making progress at last. At COP15, a conference held by the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in December of last year, almost 200 countries signed a statement affirming that nature — not just wildlife but the entire natural world — holds inherent rights similar to our own. The agreement is nonbinding, so it’s up to individual countries to develop conservation plans that honor the statement’s blueprint for preserving biodiversity. There is always reason to doubt the human capacity for doing any such thing, but the very existence of this agreement suggests that there is also reason to hope.
In the meantime, the World Bird Sanctuary has a plan for preparing Murphy’s baby for a life in the wild. If all goes well, the young bird will be released on Father’s Day.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.
Source photograph by World Bird Sanctuary, via Getty Images.
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