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Last DNR eagle cam egg crushed, along with hopes for the season

Photo: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Photo: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Thousands of people have been watching one female eagle on the Minnesota DNR’s eagle cam this season, and for the past few weeks, they’ve been holding out hope that one egg -- just one -- would hatch.

This year’s saga has ended. The following is the story, beginning to end, of the last eagle cam egg.

Like all egg stories, it begins with a mom. This eagle mom is the same female that was there when the DNR’s eagle cam started up in 2012. She’s successfully raised 10 chicks in that time, with what the DNR believes was the same male. Everyone loves a power couple.

More than 24,000 people subscribe to eagle cam updates via email. About as many follow the eagle cam’s Facebook page, commenting on every new development and non-development. One such development came last November, when the eagle cam’s power male up and disappeared. He never came back.

But Eagle Mom doesn’t have all year to sit around and wait! She took up with a much younger bird and in late February, the pair were sitting pretty on three eggs.

Quickly, it became clear this wasn’t going to be an easy winter season. Eagles can handle cold. What’s harder for them is a potent cocktail of wet and cold. Sitting still through the winter’s many freezes, thaws and re-freezes could have killed Eagle Mom, and by extension, frozen her would-be chicks solid. At risk of overexposing the eggs, she had to take off from time to time.

Even that much is survivable with two working eagle parents. When mother eagles are nesting, it’s usually up to the dads to pick up the slack: save some food for her, add some new sticks into the nest (in the right places), and take a few shifts incubating the eggs. This new male was so young and so clueless that he didn’t know how to do any of that stuff -- or even that he was supposed to.

Viewers watched as he’d bring some meat back to the nest and start to chow down on it, then rear in apparent surprise as Eagle Mom started to snap at him. By the time he got the picture and started picking up on some of his fatherly duties, the eggs’ projected hatch week was just around the corner.

Everyone waited on pins and needles to see whether the eggs were still viable. Unfortunately, eagles can’t use social media, and if they could, they'd probably feel weird knowing thousands of random humans were watching them eat and have sex and lay eggs with a vested interest in the health of their chicks. Instead, people found out the eggs weren’t looking promising when the first one disappeared from the nest.

Commenters speculated wildly about whether it was pushed further into the nest or whether it was simply obscured from view by a stick or an eagle butt, but gradually, everyone accepted that the egg was gone. Soon enough, a second egg followed suit.

Then there was one. One egg that survived wet, cold, an inattentive dad and over-attentive rival males. The fact that it had made it so far seemed to be a sign of something good. Maybe there was a strength in this egg that there hadn’t been in the others.

But fate said otherwise. The adults weren’t spending enough time in the nest. Both mother and father were stepping out for longer and longer intervals, leaving the lonely egg exposed. Then, one day, a 3-year-old juvenile male eagle found the egg completely unattended. He batted it around once or twice, nipping at it with his beak and rolling it along with its claws before finally hooking his talons around it and crushing it. He was looking for an easy meal. It had been a tough winter for everyone.

The video shows how simple it was. The egg just fell apart into a stringy mess of shell fragments and yellow slop. According to the DNR, that’s a sign that there was little chance the egg was viable anyway. Otherwise the hungry male would have found a developing chick inside.

It is “highly unlikely” there will be any more eggs this year, the DNR says.

The eagle cam community hasn’t always been great with loss. Demands to rescue a sickly eaglet a few years back reached the ears of the governor, who put the DNR up to it only to have the eaglet die in captivity. It’s not always easy to accept how unforgiving and anticlimactic nature can be.

But this time, the thing the public was saying the most was “thank you.” A few remarked how sad it was not to have babies to watch this year, a few wondered where the original eagle dad could be, but many were just grateful for the update.

That, they wrote, is just how things go sometimes. Maybe there’s hope for next time. After all, Eagle Mom survived the winter. And all egg stories begin with a mom.