Eagle-Cam: Cuteness and Danger in Equal Measure

As I write this, more than 170,000 people around the world – a larger audience than a lot of television shows are drawing in the middle of a weekday afternoon – are watching a live broadcast of an eagle sitting on its nest.

Occasionally the bird stands, revealing the two hatchlings it’s protecting – both entered the world, on camera, over the weekend – and a third egg, which is expected to hatch within the next few days. But often it just sits there, turning its head around 180 degrees in that unsettling avian way to scan its surroundings.

The 24-hour eagle-cam (infrared light allows the nest to be seen at night) was set up by a nonprofit group called the Raptor Resource Project in Decorah, Iowa. It records the home life of a pair of bald eagles in the nest they built in 2007, in a cottonwood tree 80 feet above a stream called Trout Run. Two cameras are positioned (and camouflaged) about five feet above the nest; one can be zoomed and panned to follow the birds’ movements.

Egg-laying and hatching have been broadcast in past years, but the video went viral this time around, with views climbing past 10 million over the weekend.

The appeal of the broadcast probably lies largely in the sentimental reading we bring to it – the miracle of birth, the extreme cuteness of the hatchlings, the sight of the adult impassively guarding its brood. But there’s wildness and a palpable undercurrent of danger, too. On one side of the nest lie the dead bodies of what appear to be other birds, which the adult occasionally tears at and feeds to the young.

Currently, one of the chicks has emerged from the safety of nest’s central hollow – where it shelters beneath its parent – and has crawled over to one of the carcasses, where it is experimenting with feeding itself. There’s something terrifying in watching the defenseless ball of fuzz out in the open, near the edge of the nest – which might explain why the number of viewers dropped by nearly 20,000 right after it emerged.

POSTSCRIPT: At about 3:18 p.m. Eastern time, the chick crawled back into the nest’s central hole, out of sight beneath its parent. A sigh of relief could be felt wafting through the Internet.

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