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Meet Murphy the eagle, who tried to hatch a rock and then became a dad

Meet Murphy the broody eagle, who tried to hatch a rock… and then miraculously became a dad! TOM LEONARD gets up close and personal with the 31-year-old bird that can’t fly or mate but who has won millions of fans after adopting an orphaned chick

Their privacy is a priority, so curtains have been erected to shield them from an adoring public. But the Mail was allowed to open them — just a crack — to take a peek at the hottest couple in America right now.

One of the duo, Murphy, sits motionless on a perch, while a few feet below him a fluffy grey creature lurches clumsily around a square wooden nest that’s lined with mulch and astroturf.

The unlikely pair — a 31-year-old bachelor Bald Eagle and an endearing orphan eaglet — have, during the past few weeks, become avian superstars, their every move followed avidly on social media (one tweet got 4.5 million views).

For Murphy, it’s been a rollercoaster ride from mockery to soaring acclaim.

Back in the 1990s, he was taken as an injured chick to the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Missouri, from Oklahoma, some 400 miles away.

Bald eagle Murphy, 31, who sat on a rock thinking it was an egg has become a proud foster father to an injured baby eagle

The arrival of a chick — known as Eaglet 23-126 — badly in need of a parental figure gave Murphy the chance to become a father 

The Sanctuary treats more than 700 birds, mainly raptors, each year and houses some 200 it is unable to release.

His broken leg soon healed but, while learning to fly, Murphy broke a wing, permanently damaging it, so now he can never be released into the wild.

Nor has he had much luck in love. Housed with two females and despite building a nest — a move sanctuary staff described as an obvious come-on — Murphy never managed to mate with either. But his brooding instinct was so strong he took to treating a small rock as an unhatched egg and trying to incubate it. He and his ‘rock baby’ inevitably caught the media’s attention and they became an internet sensation.

At the time, his behaviour was so bizarre that staff put up a sign to reassure visitors. Normally mild-mannered, Murphy became so aggressively protective of the rock — he would charge screeching when any other eagles approached, forcing them to flee and huddle in a corner — that earlier this month he was moved to his own enclosure.

And so it was that Murphy seemed destined to be remembered as America’s most tragic bird: an eagle who couldn’t fly or mate, yet who was desperate for offspring of his own to nurture.

But now tragedy has turned to joy with the arrival of a chick — known as Eaglet 23-126 — badly in need of a parental figure. And Murphy has risen spectacularly to the challenge. Images and videos of him tending to the chick have gone viral. As one fan enthused: ‘He’s not the stepdad, he’s the dad that stepped up.’

Murphy has amazed sanctuary staff and ornithologists by not only taking on the role of a mother eagle but doing so to a chick that isn’t even his.

Dawn Griffard, chief executive of the Sanctuary, says Murphy may well believe the rock he so devotedly kept warm has now hatched into the chick he’s raising.

The stone Murphy mistook for an egg in March – leading keepers to tap him as a foster dad after being inspired by his fatherly sense of duty

Ms Griffard says the team felt strongly that any adult male eagle willing to incubate a rock might prove at least as diligent when it came to fostering a real baby bird.

The chick was only a week or two old when it was brought to the sanctuary last month after high winds ripped its nest out of a tree.

Its nest mate was killed but, bruised and battered, 23-126 —whose gender is so far indiscernible — was found helpless on the ground. When it joined Murphy in his enclosure four weeks ago, keepers initially placed it in a cage until they were sure he wouldn’t treat it as a threat and attack.

READ MORE: Bald eagles were endangered and almost extinct, but America’s national symbol is making a comeback – we reveal the states where numbers are soaring

Now released, it’s more of a galumphing adolescent than a cute little baby, having gone from 10.5 ounces to 60 ounces in less than a month.

Murphy took an immediate interest. And one morning when keepers checked to make sure both had eaten (they get one meal a day at 9.30am), they noticed that while Murphy’s fish had been torn apart, the chick’s food was untouched. At the same time, the chick’s crop — an area under its chin where food is stored — was full, indicating that Murphy had fed him.

Baby eagles learn by watching adults — and Murphy’s charge has since copied him not only feeding, but also preening his feathers.

Murphy has also been defending the chick. On the rare occasions staff have had to enter the enclosure, he quickly moved to put himself between the keepers and the baby bird.

Fans urged the sanctuary to call the chick ‘Rocky’, but it’s considered bad luck to name an animal when the hope is to release it — which is the plan for 23-126 — into the wild at some point.

But making the chick wilderness-ready is a tricky business. It’s crucial in these first weeks that the chick ‘imprints’ on an adult eagle rather than a human, hence the white curtains around the pairs’ enclosure so that the chick doesn’t see staff providing food, which is delivered by chute straight into the enclosure.

The odd couple are not on public display — the sanctuary is keeping fans updated with regular images and videos on its Facebook page — so it is a rare honour to be allowed to watch them together in their 34ft by 8ft birdhouse.

Fans urged the sanctuary to call the chick ‘Rocky’, but it’s considered bad luck to name an animal when the hope is to release it — which is the plan for 23-126 — into the wild at some point

It can be rather a tedious business, though, because when they’re not soaring majestically through the skies or swooping to pluck prey — amply justifying their choice as America’s national emblem — Bald Eagles tend to sit quietly.

However, Murphy suddenly looks up and lets out what sounds like a chuckle — it’s technically known as ‘cackling’ — which my guide, sanctuary hospital director Kira Klebe, says indicates that he’s spotted another bird overhead and is warning it off.

A few minutes later, it is the chick’s turn to exert itself. Its legs are still too weak for it to walk properly, but it can hobble around on its hocks and it suddenly moves towards Murphy, beak open wide and peeping pleadingly in what is known as the ‘food call’.

Dad, however, is having none of it. Kira points out that the eaglet’s crop is full and so 23-126 doesn’t need to be fed.

‘In the wild, the pushiest chick gets fed first, so it would ‘food call’ 24/7 if you let it,’ she explains.

Of course, new dads don’t always get it right and Kira concedes that Murphy is ‘probably not quite as attentive to the baby as a female would be’.

READ MORE: Murphy the bald eagle – who went viral for sitting on a rock thinking it was an egg – becomes proud foster dad to injured baby eaglet

When a tornado passed close to the sanctuary last week, Murphy allowed the chick to follow him to an exposed part of the enclosure. It was found the next day soaking wet and had to be treated for hypothermia.

But in general Murphy’s caring instincts have been a huge and heartening surprise, says the sanctuary, his embarrassing days incubating his ‘rock baby’ now largely forgotten.

While it’s true that Bald Eagles are ‘very good and instinctual parents’ who share parenting duties, males tend to hunt for food while the females — bigger and fiercer, so more of a deterrent against predators — stay in the nest.

‘Very, very few males sit on eggs and, apart from him, I’ve heard of none who’ve sat on rocks,’ Kira tells me.

Her boss, Dawn Griffard, adds that females have been known to sit on golf balls or pebbles to compensate for not having eggs when spring-time hormones surge.

The sanctuary has described the bond between the two birds as ‘too much for the heart to handle’. But, of course, there will come a time when this pair must part.

Kira says that moment will arrive in some five to seven weeks when the chick is starting to fly. By then, Murphy may be tired of his needy companion anyway. Parent eagles start ignoring chicks when they feel it’s time they left the nest.

Unfortunately, Murphy can neither show the chick how to fly nor hunt. While flying is eventually instinctual — adult Bald Eagles have a wingspan of up to 8ft — the sanctuary is hoping to put live trout in a child’s paddling pool so the eaglet can practise scooping them out.

In the summer, the bird will be released in an area with a lot of wild eagles and where fish are often washed up dead, making them an easy target for a beginner.

Meanwhile, Murphy will be first in line when a foster parent is needed again.

The response in the U.S. to the story of Murphy and 23-126 has been ‘phenomenal’, says Kira.

While their prey may beg to differ, Bald Eagles have a reputation for being desperately romantic birds. They engage in a spectacular aerial courtship that involves flying upside down and, after mating, form an often life-long bond that some have compared to human love. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Murphy should have taken to fatherhood with such devotion.

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