Do you like reality TV shows, laced with mystery, sex, domestic warfare, tragedy and success? Here’s a tip: Join the millions who log onto bird nestcam sites to see, close-up, the lives and loves of everything from tiny hummingbirds to majestic bald eagles. The stories are a little slower than, say, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” but the “reality” part is actually real.
Nestcams -- shorthand for cameras at nesting sites -- were first used to monitor the productivity of endangered species. Researchers soon realized this technology had much wider scientific and educational uses. Now, with live streaming video available on almost any electronic device, nestcam viewing is increasing exponentially – by amateurs as well as specialists. Last year, more than 11 million people logged on to watch a bald eagle nest in Iowa. Just two weeks ago, my cousin from Ireland called to tell me his bird watching club had added a link to a bald eagle nestcam in Ohio and the whole county was watching. Some sites have tracked observers from more than 137 countries.
Nestcams show the intimate details of courtship, mating and infidelity, egg laying, hatching, and the care and growth of chicks. It can thrill you when a young eagle takes its first flight and trouble you when a mother barn owl eats a chick that died. Last month, Phoebe the hummingbird’s eggs were lost to a crow.
Nestcams can be highly sophisticated and run by scientists like those at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Or they can be school projects, such as the solar powered nestcam on a bluebird box built by students and teachers at my son’s Somers Intermediate School.
To see birds nesting now, start with The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nestcam site. It is currently monitoring live great blue heron and red-tailed hawk nests (I just watched the hawk eating what appears to be a pigeon). You’ll also find archives of birds that nested previously. Still within the Lab’s incredible web world, try its All About Birds, which has more nestcams including an American kestrel (five chicks showing) and a Pacific loon. In April, Wired Science collected 11 active nestcams.
If you have active birdhouses in your yard, you can stream their activity yourself.
I did a quick search on Amazon.com and found multiple models of houses with cameras already installed for anywhere from $50 to $200. You can also buy cameras to monitor birds that don’t nest in houses.
Before you do this, I encourage you to check out the site of a couple of devoted and caring amateurs at sialis.org. They have great insights into equipment and the proper placement of cameras for safety of the birds and best viewing for you. If you’re visiting nests in person, please review the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s helpful Code of Conduct, to help keep the chicks safe.
Nestcams are an incredible window into bird life. I hope you will use them to further your enjoyment and understanding of birds. Still, don’t just stay inside watching that computer screen. This is the best time of year to be out and about, listening to mating calls out in the field! See you on the trails.