When reproduction goes wrong, two bald eagles inspire.
For months now, a stirring family drama starring a telegenic Southern California couple has been unfolding live for viewers in Big Bear Valley, California. The couple are not Hollywood actors, but the “Facebook famous” bald eagle pair Jackie and Shadow, whose lives have been under round-the-clock observation via a Nest Cam installed on top of a 120-foot Jeffrey pine tree by the non-profit organization Friends of Big Bear Valley.
But what should be happy viewing has recently taken a sad turn. The U.S. Forest Service now knows that the bonded pair’s two eggs, which should have borne chicks soon after Valentine’s Day, will never hatch — a phenomenon known as a nest failure. As the Forest Service explained on February 21st, “The eggs may have been infertile from the start (incomplete fertilization during mating, etc.) or the embryos could have died during incubation (from congenital defects, weather, or environmental factors) or the chicks may not have been able to successfully break out of their shells.” Scientists predicted the eagles would “continue incubation for another 10 days or so, but they’ll start leaving the eggs unattended for periods of time that will lengthen each day."
Nearly three weeks later, the charismatic pair shows few signs of giving up the vigil. Day after day and night after night, through high winds, freezing rains, and snowstorms, the eagles continue to tend their clutch. Their persistence in what we humans know is a futile struggle has proven unbearable for some of their Facebook fans. But Nature is not a movie with a neat theme or comforting moral arc. Instead, what we get to see here is its sheer doggedness and grit. Heartbreaking, yes — but also awe-inspiring.
It’s not easy being a bald eagle. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the mortality rate during the first year of life is greater than 50 percent. Last year, fans watched in quiet devastation when one of Jackie and Shadow’s eaglets, a male named Cookie after a contest for schoolchildren, became listless and died after a night of wet snow and freezing temperatures.
Fortunately, the second eaglet, a boisterous male named Simba, thrived under the care of devoted parents. His amusing antics and stubborn refusal to leave a nest with gorgeous views and excellent room service proved to be the best reality show around, especially as narrated on Facebook by biologist Sandy Steers, Executive Director of Friends of Big Bear Valley. As word spread about this hilariously entitled Gen Z’er, thousands tuned in to watch Simba beat his wings, shriek piteously at the smallest difficulty, wrest fish from his parents without so much as a grateful look, and generally act like a coddled Southern California adolescent. But fly he would not, until one morning, quite casually, Simba executed a graceful swoop and landed in a nearby tree. He hung around for a few days, then went on his way.
Fans could hardly wait for this year, in hopes Jackie and Shadow would reenact the delightful family comedy all over again. Right on cue, in late November the pair renewed their courtship and began to renovate their nest. New and longtime eagle watchers swooned at the adorable spectacle of nuzzling, beak-clasping, and branch gathering.
The eagles acted like new lovers, which, in eagle terms, they were. Despite a reputation for mating for life, Jackie had flouted those rules by leaving her previous mate for Shadow when he showed up at the nest in the summer of 2018. The chemistry between the two was obvious: Shadow acted like he’d hit the mate jackpot; while Jackie exuded the calm confidence of a female who knows her value and has found a mate who knows it, too.
On January 8th and 11th, Jackie laid their two eggs. Fans flooded the Facebook page with heart emojis and settled in for the incubation period. In the meantime, they were treated to one of the more inspiring examples of coupling on any screen anywhere. Jackie proved a fiercely protective nester through bitter cold and snowy nights, while Shadow, a crack hunter and gatherer, never came home without a freshly caught fish or stick for his lady love. By mid-February, fans waited expectantly for the first “pipping” — shell cracking at hatching — in the first egg. (The Nest Cam zoomed in as the eagles changed shifts to allow close-up views.)
But Day 38 went by; then Days 40 and 41. As the eggs remained stubbornly intact, worried fans peppered the site with anxious questions and crying face emojis. One woman bitterly lamented she was fighting cancer and might not be around next year to see the eagles try again. Sandy Steers weighed in: “Rather than worry, speculate or make pronouncements, we would prefer to be diligent observers of nature in all of its beauty and its amazing processes, curiosities and possibilities… We will continue watching and learning and humbly allow the eagles and nature to show us what will happen next.”
It was an eloquent plea to stop anthropomorphizing the eagles. It also did not work.
A day later, when the National Forest Service declared that “we’ll be very (pleasantly) surprised if either egg hatches,” the broken heart emojis accumulated like cherries on Vegas slot machines. We humans turn out to be both impatient and inconsolable.
Recent days have brought new challenges to the eagles. A storm dumped several inches of fresh powder on the nest. An intruder eagle showed up — likely a female seeking to take over the nest and territory— and tussled with both Jackie and Shadow, bloodying Shadow’s head. The pair successfully warded her off.
Fans still hope that these excellent eagle parents might produce a second clutch of eggs this year, though that rarely happens.
But one fact remains clear: Big Bear’s bald eagles continue to provide a show worth watching, for the humbling lessons they offer in fidelity, tenacity, and the unexpected beauty of what happens next.
Check out my other articles on Medium, including See Jane Run… To Jail: Why I Wasn’t Sad to see my Famous “mom friend” go to Prison.
You can follow me through my email list. Please click here to Subscribe.