The Sid and Nancy Show is on the air, and viewers across the world are tuning in to watch the soap opera-like courtship unfold, entertaining and sometimes-uncomfortable details and all.
Sid and Nancy are the newest bald eagles spotlighted by the wildly popular EagleCam, the 24/7 reality nature show sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The unbanded pair took up residence in the nest last year and have been titillating viewers since late fall. They were named by a member of Friends of Minnesota Nongame Eagle Cam, a public Facebook group whose members chronicle the pair’s every move and interaction — including, shall we say, its recent amorous interludes.
As one member posted recently, “Love birds in the nest.”
Said another a few days later: “Sid needs practice.”
Now in its seventh season, EagleCam is more popular today than ever, DNR officials say, and has helped spur fundraising for the agency’s nongame work, the cam’s original purpose. That is because the nongame wildlife program relies heavily (about 80 percent) on public donations. The cam also is used routinely by teachers around the world as a classroom tool. This year for the first time the cam has been wired for sound, a new sensory experience that cam-watchers appear to be thoroughly enjoying. In fact, rumor has it some staffers in the governor’s office are EagleCam binge-watchers. Meanwhile, Facebook group members are anxiously awaiting eggs from Nancy (the first was announced Friday), with the hope of eventually spying, and hearing, eaglets for the first time in two years.
“I’m always humbled by just how popular it has become with the public — not only in Minnesota but across the globe,” said Lori Naumann, nongame wildlife program information officer and EagleCam manager. “It’s certainly exceeded my expectations.”
Once pushed to the brink of extinction, the bald eagle has made a well-publicized comeback since the pesticide DDT was banned in the early 1970s. Minnesota has more bald eagles than any other state in the Lower 48.
Naumann said bald eagles evoke an emotional attachment and that’s likely only deepened with the EagleCam, started in 2012. It’s been viewed by people in 180 countries and every U.S. state, and has the DNR’s largest e-mail subscriber list with about 26,000 people.
“They’re very charismatic birds and people care about their welfare,” said Naumann. “When they see them up close and personal, I think they care even more.”
Tom Demma, 57, is an amateur photographer from Cottage Grove and a member of the Friends Facebook group. He makes semiregular posts on the page, including one late last year in which he named the new pair Sid and Nancy. Demma, who found the DNR’s nest by “dumb luck” while shooting photos a few years ago, said he’s not surprised by EagleCam’s popularity.
“I’m old enough to remember rarely seeing a bald eagle and when you did it was a really big deal,” he said. “It’s still a big deal. People are fascinated by bald eagles, their behavior and their story.”
While operating the EagleCam has gotten smoother over the years, Naumann said its beginnings were challenging, especially working out the technological glitches. “The location of the nest was in a cellphone hole and streaming was challenging,” she said. “It took us a few years to work out the kinks. I don’t know where we’d be without my IT staff. They’re invaluable.”
The new nest audio has presented similar challenges, Naumann said, like the microphone picking nearby traffic noise. “We used a piece of plywood to block out the sound, which has worked pretty well,” she said. “People so far seem pretty happy with it.”
Naumann said public relations is a big, and often tricky, part of her work. When the public witnesses nature’s cruel realities — like when an eaglet appears near death on the nest — she often has to manage the emotional response on social media. She also gets numerous calls and e-mails, some uncomplimentary.
“The expectation that this nest, and these birds, are somehow royalty … and should be treated differently than other wildlife can be frustrating,” she said. “At any one time there could be several nests with chicks that are struggling … and intervening could make things worse. It’s survival of the fittest and that’s sometimes hard for people to accept — especially when they’re watching it play out on their cellphones or computer.”
But sometimes politics intervenes. One year the governor’s office got so much worrisome public feedback about a sickly eaglet on EagleCam that it called the DNR to intervene. The DNR did, though the chick had to be euthanized later.
“I was one those people who called,” said Shauna Hetterick, of Norwood Young America, the administrator for the Friends Facebook group, which has about 10,000 members and routinely does fundraisers for the nongame program. “It was hard not to be emotional. It was hard to watch. But I’ve learned a lot since then about bald eagles and about nature itself. It’s better to let nature take its course, even when it’s difficult to watch. That’s just the reality.”
Even though EagleCam was devised to raise awareness about the DNR’s nongame program’s funding needs and not eagle research per se, Naumann said she’s learned plenty about the birds by having to monitor them so intently.
“I’ve learned that not all eagles have the same characteristics and personalities … and that they have a varied diet, from fish to mammals to birds,” she said, adding fundraising often increases when there’s more drama on the EagleCam nest. “I’ve also learned how many obstacles there are and how harsh living in the environment can be — and how many things can go wrong and that raising a brood to fledging stage is truly a miracle.”
Naumann said the agency is looking to add an additional EagleCam. However, site selection is tough because it requires certain infrastructure (power and access).
Added Naumann: “Operating the cam has been the most challenging and rewarding part of my career. It’s a privilege that’s not lost on me, one that I’m grateful for and look forward to every year. ”
Tori J. McCormick is freelance outdoors writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.