In one giant nest are bald eagles named Guardian and Liberty, lovingly nurturing their three fluffy new chicks through their first days of life. In another, sit Shadow and Jackie, taking turns to carefully but forlornly incubate an egg they don’t yet realize is never going to hatch.
The compelling stories and contrasting fortunes of the two pairs of breeding raptors, live streamed to the world on YouTube from California, have become essential viewing for hundreds of thousands during the coronavirus lockdown, and in many ways symbolic of the vagaries and sadnesses of the pandemic itself.
Shadow, a seven-year-old male, and his nine-year-old partner, lost their first eaglet on 19 March when it died during the hatching process in their nest at Big Bear valley in the San Bernardino national forest.
According to the US forest service, the second egg should have hatched within a day or two of the first. “The odds of it hatching are exceedingly low at this point,” the service said in a statement.
“This egg was either infertile or failed to develop all the way and died during incubation.”
The nest’s live webcam, operated by the nonprofit Friends of Big Bear Valley, and which regularly attracts thousands of viewers at any one time, shows the oblivious adult eagles continuing to share egg-sitting duties, before they abandon their efforts in the coming days or weeks.
“It is not unusual for bald eagles to have a run of bad luck,” the forest service said, referring to another clutch of eggs that Shadow and Jackie abandoned in January midway through the 40-day incubation process. Those eggs were eventually eaten by ravens.
“Some studies have documented overall nesting success averaging about 50-60%,” the service said. “Survival rates during the first year of life are around 50%.”
The happier news from the other nest in northern California is reflected in an equally popular livestream from the Friends of the Redding Eagles, which rushed to install its high-definition webcam for the pandemic audience last summer after a five-year absence.
Liberty, a 22-year-old female, is on her third “marriage” and her three chicks with seven-year-old partner Guardian were hatched between 21 and 24 March, the most recent captured on a recorded video posted to YouTube. In all, the group says, Liberty has raised 22 offspring from egg to fledgling, including three sets of triplets.
Terri Lhuillier, founder of the group, said she has received grateful messages from many countries, and believes watching the eagles has helped people cope with the coronavirus lockdown.
“It’s a distraction, it completely takes your mind off your worries,” she said. “The eagles don’t know there’s a pandemic, you start watching them and everything’s normal, and for people to have this distraction has been a wonderful thing.”
Bald eagles live an average of 15 to 30 years in the wild, according to the US fish and wildlife service, and conservation efforts have seen the species recover strongly from the brink of extinction 40 years ago. The service’s most recent report estimates that numbers have quadrupled in the decade since 2009, to 316,700 birds, including 71,400 nesting pairs.