Eagle- and osprey-peeping: not just for the nosy

Posted on Mar 25, 2015 | 0 comments

Eagle feeds its just-hatched chicks. Image courtesy PA Game Commission

Eagle feeds its just-hatched chicks. Image courtesy PA Game Commission

A small, fuzzy and slow-moving bald eagle chick hatched from an egg early this morning in a high-up nest somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was the second of two eggs; the first hatched yesterday.

Both births were widely anticipated. In fact, as many as 63,000 people either watched the chicks appear at first light on their computers, phones or other devices, or tuned in later in the day for an update. I got to my desk about a half-hour too late for the first appearance, so I saw it on video. By that time, the onslaught of excited eagle-peepers had crashed the PA Game Commission’s web link and the live feed from the nest-side webcam had gone dark.

The rush of viewers should not have been a surprise. The Hanover, PA bald eagle nest cam had been gaining viewers steadily, sometimes thousands a day, since the female laid the first of the two eggs on Valentine’s Day.

Why is the nest cam so popular? Hatching of a wild bird egg is not exactly headline news. But the bald eagle is iconic, with its stark white head and noble profile and its elevated place in American culture. It’s also true that those of us over 40 still think of it as a rare, endangered bird — although eagle populations today are healthy.

What’s more, these eagle parents had already grabbed viewers’ hearts with their touching behavior. They took turns at the nest (both genders incubate the eggs) and one was captured on video delicately using his or her (male and female plumage is the same) beak and talons to turn the two eggs, position them in the cup of the nest and then ever-so-carefully re-settle its body over them to keep them warm. The video went viral.

Image courtesy PA Game Commission

Image courtesy PA Game Commission

Just as appealing were the photos and videos of the pair continuing to brood during a snowstorm, taking turns sitting patiently on the nest while the snow gradually buried them, leaving only the tops of their heads visible. Periodically, the brooding parent would rise in an eruption of snow, spread its wings and shake, then quickly resettle on the eggs or change places with its mate.

It was a dramatic spectacle, filled with beauty and suspense. Would the eagles stay the course? Would the eggs survive? One egg was thought to have been compromised early on when the eagles were spooked by a human intrusion near the nest and left it exposed for a time in frigid weather. The sense of relief when the second chick made its appearance this morning was palpable. The Hanover Eagle Watch Facebook page quickly filled with a stream of comments and screenshots, often with captions like “Happy Hatching Day, Eaglet Chick!” and “Congrats, Mom and Dad Eagle! Your babies are beautiful…Great job!” There was a torrent of emojis and strings of exclamation points.

People cared. A lot.

While scientists warn us against making anthropomorphic assumptions about animal behavior and motivations, there is something very hopeful and positive about the strong connections the webcam allowed us to make with the wild eagles.

Osprey flies from nest

Osprey flies from nest

I’ve been a fan of nest cams for some time now, primarily because of my interest in ospreys, whose story of survival and resilience in the face of environmental pressures (largely the same pressures that faced the eagles) provided the framework for my young adult novel, WASHASHORE. Ospreys bounced back from endangered status only after the pesticide DDT was banned (ten years after Rachel Carson exposed the problem) and humans created safe nesting sites atop tall poles for the birds to breed.

The man-made nesting platforms, coupled with the birds’ long absence in winter, create a perfect opportunity for the installation of cameras that would record the birds’ home life and broadcast it on the Internet.

Ospreys exist on every continent, and in their northern breeding zones, scores of nestcams are poised and thousands of online viewers check in often, awaiting their springtime return from migration and observing as the birds build and repair nests, fish and feed, mate, incubate eggs and care for chicks until the young can fly and the cycle begins all over again.

It’s reality TV, but unlike “Survivor,”or “The Bachelor,” it is unscripted and unpredictable—and the suspense is real. Ospreys return to the same nest year after year…except when they don’t. Sometimes eggs fail or chicks don’t thrive. Owls can prey on parent or chick. Last year, a female osprey at a nest with a webcam in Woods Hole, MA attacked her young and denied them food. A controversy ensued, as viewers named the bird Momzilla and begged the owners of the webcam to intervene, but they were scientists and rightly refused. Two of the chicks survived and fledged; one starved to death.

So online nest viewing is not always emotionally safe for the young and tender-hearted. Yet I believe it has enormous educational value.

It’s different from the packaged animal videos on Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel. Watching wildlife drama unfold live, in real time, is more like the first stage of a research project: you don’t know what you’re going to learn. Sometimes you go down a fruitless path; other times you discover things you hadn’t imagined. It rewards persistence and patience, as well as omnivorousness.

It appeals to our nosiness, too–like watching a neighbor’s house. Sometimes nobody comes out and you don’t learn anything; sometimes the police knock on their door and you learn more than you ever wanted to know.

Either way, though, looking through the window a nest cam opens up is a real, mesmerizing, human activity. Not knowing the outcome is what makes us care.

Caring, in turn, inspires a sense of connection to beings from which we too often allow ourselves to be disconnected. If you saw an osprey chick get its talon caught, as one did last year, in an errant balloon string its parent had woven into the nest, you would think twice about scheduling a balloon release for your wedding. And if you come to care about a family of raptors, you can’t avoid thinking about the impact of pesticides on their history as a species. It’s a short leap from there to a re-examination of your own family’s gardening or produce-buying practices.

Students in The Gambia watch an osprey video made by students in London

Students in The Gambia watch an osprey video made by students in London

This week, schoolchildren in the UK, US, Scotland, Finland, Poland, Ukraine, Israel and elsewhere are connecting through “World Osprey Week,” hosted by an osprey restoration group in Rutland, England. They follow the migration progress of radio transmitter-carrying ospreys, then watch the webcams as the birds settle and breed. Classes are exchanging notes and observations and learning about one another in the process through e-mails, blog posts and even group Skype sessions. It’s an amazing opportunity, created by nature and fostered by technology.

Kindergarten students in Great Falls, Montana, watch the Hanover, PA eagle nest

Kindergarten students in Great Falls, Montana, watch the Hanover, PA eagle nest

When we introduce children to nature in the raw like this, we have a responsibility to provide context and help with interpretation. But it’s also a great pleasure to sit back and ogle nature in real time along with the kids. The increase in internet-connected classrooms and SMART Boards makes it all the easier to keep an eye on the action.

The eagles in Hanover, Pennsylvania have been successful so far. The growth and development of the chicks will provide months of learning opportunities before, with any luck, the entire family heads south for a warm winter vacation. I hope their viewership continues to grow.

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