NORFOLK -- The mating habits of Norfolk's most famous eagle are raising some eyebrows among wildlife experts.
Bald eagles are known for mating for life, but the resident male eagle at Norfolk Botanical Garden has been observed mating with three and possibly four different female eagles this season.
One local expert says this behavior has never been as well documented as it has been at the Norfolk nest, thanks to a webcam which captures images of the eagle nest 24 hours a day.
"Eagles sometimes have more than one mate, although that is really rare," said Reese Lukei, a researcher with the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary. He said that the Norfolk male eagle's behavior is highly unusual.
Lukei has kept records of the different females at the nest, all of which have been observed mating with the male.
"Female #1" spent the fall bonding with the male by building their nest together at Norfolk Botanical Garden. She was seen with the male from September of last year through January 6th.
"Female #2," distinguished by the pale color of her beak, was at the nest Jan. 8-19th.
"Female #3," distinguished by black colored feathers in her tail, was there Jan. 20- Jan. 30.
From Jan. 31-Feb. 6, a female which could be #2, or a new eagle, #4, was with the male.
And over the last week, a bird with black tail feathers, probably #3, was back at the nest and seen mating with the male.
Which female will end up ruling the roost? Lukei believes whichever female is the first to lay an egg in the nest will become the resident female.
As documented by Eagle Cam, the eagles have certainly been doing their part to make eggs, and the first one could be laid at any time.
"Male sperm can stay viable for up to 7 days. It must impregnate a female ovum, then it takes 24 hours or so for an egg to form in the oviduct, which is an assembly line of all the ingredients it takes to make an egg," said Lukei.
This male bald eagle has called Norfolk Botanical Garden home since 2004 and mated with the same female the entire time. 15 healthy eaglets fledged from their nest during that time.
Last April, the female was killed by an airplane landing at nearby Norfolk International Airport. The male remained in his established territory and began nest-building with "Female #1" in the fall.
It is possible that fate dealt the male eagle another blow in January when a dead adult female eagle was found near power lines at Norfolk Botanical Garden. Biologists are unable to say for sure whether that was "Female #1," but Lukei believes it was probably her.
Rather than attributing the male's uncharacteristic behavior to the loss of his mate at the start of breeding season, Lukei says the cause is more likely an abundance of adult bald eagles in the area.
As eagle populations have risen, competition for mates and territory has grown.
Lukei said that other prime locations in the region, such as North Landing River, Stumpy Lake, and Back Bay are attracting large numbers of bald eagles.
That surge in population includes some of the eagles produced by the pair at Norfolk Botanical Garden.
Two of those eaglets (dubbed Camellia and Azalea) were fitted with satellite tracking transmitters, and have been observed around Great Neck and Little Neck areas of Virginia Beach.
Lake Whitehurst, adjacent to Norfolk Botanical Garden, is prime eagle territory because it is well stocked with fish.