When birdcams become horror films

  • Article by: AMY GOETZMAN SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: June 6, 2014 - 8:59 AM

Birdcams are increasingly popular with school kids and nature-lovers, but what happens when the camera captures more than viewers can stomach?

A DNR birdcam captured a nesting female eagle in one of its more threatening poses.

Photo: Provided by Minnesota DNR,

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Right now, thousands of people around the world are sitting in front of their computers staring into the homes of other families. Hidden cameras allow these peeping toms to watch, in real time, as unwitting couples bicker, bill and coo, and feed and rear their children. It’s equal parts nanny cam, “The Truman Show” and Animal Planet, an exercise in craven voyeurism that lets you be the spy in the house of love — birdhouse of love, that is.

The activation of a thousand birdcams has become a high-tech sign of spring, as back yard bird enthusiasts hide tiny cameras in their birdhouses to see exactly what’s going on in that nest up there. Chair-bound birders can peer into the nests of dozens of species, including those of several high-profile Minnesota bird families. Xcel Energy and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources host popular bald eagle cams. Minnesota Bound also has an eagle cam, as well as a live loon cam (eggs were laid in mid-May). The DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program reported on May 22 that three new fuzzy peregrine falcon chicks hatched on the Bremer Bank building in St. Paul. But dedicated watchers already knew that; they’d been stalking the nest online for days.

Portraits of bird life

“It’s addicting, and people get totally crazy over them,” says Sharon Stiteler, better known as Birdchick. The Minneapolis-based national parks ranger, international bird guide and birding author prefers getting out in the field and birding with binoculars or her iPhone. “I do tune in, sort of the way I watch Netflix — I ignore [the cams] until people start really talking about something; then I tune in for the must-see action.”

Today’s advanced cameras offer crystal-clear footage of wildlife at an intimate perspective we’d never otherwise see. Even if you’re not a birder, you can’t help but be captivated at the sight of a young eagle taking its first flight. And there’s something satisfying about watching the cycle of life unfold so rapidly. As a sleepless parent of young children, I started watching a barn owl cam and felt real solidarity with the weary owl parents as their goofy fuzzballs ran them ragged, one mouse after another. It goes by fast — courtship, nest-making, babies, kids, teens, takeoff.

Maybe that’s why these birdcams are so addictive. Lori Naumann of the DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program says she used to upload choice still images from the cams to Facebook, until she realized that viewers beat her to it every time. People were tuned in at all hours of the day, completely fixated on the drama unfolding in the nests. And there’s always drama. Nest collapses, predators, failing chicks — and mealtimes.

“There is constant ripping of flesh as the parents bring food to the nest and feed the chicks. It’s educational, and many school classrooms watch the cams, but it takes a while for some people to get desensitized,” says Naumann. The Nongame Wildlife Program has to balance its mission to protect more than 800 species of Minnesota wildlife while educating people about these creatures. Sometimes cam-watchers learn more about wildlife than they expected.

Suddenly a horror film

“PR-wise, these birdcams can be very tricky,” says Stiteler. “Sometimes the cams go dark, or get repositioned, and you hear from the commenters that there’s a cat in the nest. Nature can be pretty grisly. And then there’s the fact that 75 percent of the babies won’t make it. Those are tough odds.”

A vocal community of cam watchers keeps a running commentary on nest happenings, and Naumann says they very knowledgeably answer questions about bird behavior, and police themselves nicely, taking political and religious sparkers to task. (Even nature isn’t safe from the Internet.) This spring, however, viewers forced the agency’s hand when one of the eagle chicks got mired in mud following a heavy storm. The injured chick, called Snap, was clearly failing, right before viewer’s eyes. And they weren’t going to stand for it. Spectator chatter on Twitter and Facebook called for intervention.

“The Eagleholics [as the cam-watchers call themselves] demanded that we rescue the chick. The e-mail blew up, the phones blew up, and then they started calling the commissioner and the governor. So we turned the camera off and Xcel sent a bucket up to remove the chick,” says Naumann, who, the previous day, filmed a public statement explaining why the DNR would not interfere with the course of nature. Snap was taken to the Raptor Center, where it was determined that its injuries were too severe, and the eaglet was euthanized.

“It’s sad, but this is how nature works. Wildlife is so fragile and so many things can go wrong — weather, pesticides and toxins, a parent stepping the wrong way in the nest. It’s probably happening in the robin’s nest in your back yard right now,” said Naumann.

Stiteler says intervention was “absolutely the right PR move,” but problematic for the species. “Survival of the fittest means that the strongest genes go on, and when we interfere with that, we promote weaker genes,” she said. “It’s not the call I would have made.”

“The poor chick was snatched from its parents by a scary human, put in a bucket and driven to a building where more humans examined it,” said Naumann. “Its cortisone levels went up, its heart rate accelerated and it doesn’t understand. It would have been kinder to let it go to sleep in its nest.”

The Eagleholics disagreed. And perhaps they had a point; had Snap died in the nest, he would have become protein for his growing siblings, a problematic turn for sensitive viewers. But maybe that’s when it’s time to turn off the computer, and go outside to experience nature — from a more comfortable angle.

 

Amy Goetzman is a Twin Cities freelance writer and editor. She enjoys exploring wild places with her family.

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