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By Cornell Alumni Magazine
  • Lab of Ornithology
  • Animals
  • Environment
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The sun never sets on Cornell’s birdcams.

With a network of more than a dozen live-streamed cameras located as far away as New Zealand, the Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Cams project offers a constant dose of eye (and ear) candy — from the breeding habits of a bonded pair of Bermuda petrels to groups of colorful tanagers nibbling fruit at a feeder in the mountains of Panama.

“The cameras broad- cast these really intimate views that you can’t get otherwise,” says Charles Eldermire, the project’s leader. “They’re views that not only the public enjoy, but that scientists who may have studied these creatures for years have never been able to see with this kind of clarity.”

Closer to home, a cam on East Hill allows far-flung Cornellians to follow the adventures of the University’s beloved red-tailed hawks — the current pair are dubbed Arthur and Big Red — as they tend to their young each spring and summer.

“Many people see hawks as fierce predators, but it’s quite different to see them being gentle with their eggs and caring for their tiny chicks,” Eldermire says. “We’ve gotten to watch an egg crack open and a baby hawk fall out of it — really spectacular stuff.”

The Lab launched its Bird Cams project in 1998, when it started hosting a series of rudimentary nestcams. But given the limitations of late-Nineties tech — when cameras had much lower resolution and most homes had slow Internet connections — it wasn’t exactly an immersive experience.

“You’d see a single image from a bluebird box, updated every thirty seconds,” says Eldermire. “Nobody was able to watch it very well.”

The current incarnation dates to 2012, by which time technology had evolved to enable streams of high-quality video and sound—and social media had emerged as a way for home viewers to engage with the Lab and with each other. 

Now, each camera has —  naturally — its own Twitter feed, offering regular updates on the action, sometimes in minute detail.

“Arthur returns with yet another stick & gently places on BR,” @CornellHawks tweeted one morning in late March, along with a quartet of photos. “BR stands & departs the nest as Arthur takes over morning incubation duties.” 

For some viewers, the cams offer their first up-close look at the lives of birds — and occasionally, they see nature red in tooth and claw. Eldermire recalls that when the Lab had a camera trained on a great blue heron nest in 2012, a great horned owl attacked the female while she was incubating her eggs; heron fans were outraged.

A couple of years later, a camera on a great horned owl nest showed the residents dining on similar marsh birds, like great egrets — but since that cam’s aficionados were rooting for the predators, they openly admired the owls’ hunting prowess. Says Eldermire: “A lot of it comes down to how you identify with the individuals.”

These days, some two million people view one of the Lab’s cams each month. (A complete list of birdcams can be found online; due to technical issues or seasonality, a few are generally offline at any given time). They serve as an educational tool for schoolchildren, as a neutral background in dentists’ offices, as entertainment for house cats, as a welcome taste of nature for city dwellers, and more.

“We’ve had feedback from people who don’t have great eyesight and put up the image really big on their screen,” Eldermire says. “They say it has profoundly changed their relationship with the natural world, because they can see birds again.”

And thanks to infrared illumination, some cams even offer nighttime views — allowing fans to follow their feathered friends 24/7. “I’ve been hearing from a lot of people,” he says, “that it can be really comforting to watch a bird sleep.” 

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Cornell Alumni Magazine.

Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's online guide to birds and bird watching.

Header image: Charles Eldermire, Bird Cams project leader at the Laboratory of Ornithology, leads a bird walk tour through Cornell Botanic Gardens. Photo: Jason Koski, May 2010.

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