Kids grow up so fast. Just two months after their celebrated escape from eggshells, the world-famous bald eagle chicks of Decorah, Iowa — stars of the No. 1 live video in Internet history — are already venturing into the wild blue yonder. And, as usual, hordes of online viewers around the planet are enrapt with the raptors' every move.
Organizers at the Raptor Resource Project call it "Fledge Watch 2012," playing off their popular "Hatch Watch" from March. But unlike Hatch Watch, which sent viewers flocking to the webcam in hopes of seeing an egg hatch in real time, Fledge Watch features lots of empty, eagle-free scenes, with only occasional shots of a fledgling in flight practice or resting in the nest (see live feed below).
"We're going to be seeing less and less of the birds on camera in the next few days," RRP founder and director Bob Anderson tells MNN. "A lot of people have to wean themselves off of it. After so many hours, they become your birds, and you become almost obsessed with following them. But our babies are leaving the nest now."
The RRP will take its Decorah cam offline June 30, by which point this year's three chicks should be nearly independent. But since the fledging process can take a few weeks, and it may be a month before the chicks are feeding themselves, there's still time for drama — and comedy. "They're still being fed by the parents, so whenever one of the parents brings a fish back to the nest, all the babies scramble back," Anderson says. "It's hilarious to watch. The first one back usually gets the trout."
The chicks have fledged just in time for American Eagle Day on June 20, a holiday created to honor the bald eagle's comeback from the endangered species list, as well as conservation victories for other eagle species. And that's fitting, since the Decorah eagle parents are paragons of repopulation: They've been together since the winter of 2007-'08, having successfully hatched and fledged 14 eaglets since then.
While this pair of eagles has been nesting in Decorah for almost five years, though, they didn't achieve worldwide fame until last spring. That was when the RRP teamed up with UStream, a video-streaming site, to present a live feed of the Decorah eagles that quickly soared into Internet lore. Garnering 200 million views in a matter of months, the RRP now touts this feed as the "No. 1 most-viewed live video of all time." The 2012 viewership lagged a bit from the record-breaking spring of 2011, but Anderson attributes much of that drop to an increase in competition.
"The numbers are down a little bit, but we now have a lot of competitors. There are about half a dozen eagle cams around the Web now," he says. "That has sapped our viewership some, but there were still tens of thousands if not millions of individuals who followed it." One of the webcam's most dedicated constituencies are classrooms, Anderson adds, noting that many have watched the chicks from pip to fledge.
In addition to entertaining millions of schoolchildren and adults over the last two years, the Decorah eagle cam has also yielded some scientific insights about bald eagles themselves. "The infrared cameras this year showed us that the bald eagle is nocturnal just as diurnal, and sometimes even hunts at night," Anderson says. "Several weeks ago a raccoon was trying to get into the nest to eat the eggs, and both adults came flying from out of nowhere to defend the nest. Our infrared cameras have been giving us new insights and rewriting the book on bald eagles."
The RRP is already testing new cameras and other equipment for next year's Decorah cam, and Anderson — who also serves as a part-time camera operator — says one of the improved features will be a better zoom. "Every year we take it up a notch," he says. "I think next year is going to be much better."
If you can't wait till then, the RRP may still be able to help with the weaning process. While the Decorah eagle family is wrapping up its 2012 season, the RRP's turkey vulture cam in Missouri is just getting started: The birds recently laid eggs, and they're now under their own "Hatch Watch." They don't command the same awe as bald eagles, Anderson admits, but he hopes they can help Decorah fans get over their empty-nest syndrome — and maybe even develop a fan base of their own.
"This has never been done before in a turkey vulture nest, and a lot is unknown," he says. "I'm excited about it. They make their living eating roadkill and carrion, so a lot of people look down on them, but I'm hoping this camera will generate some interest." Plus, he adds, the turkey vultures and Decorah eagles share a knack for good timing. "Their timing is perfect — just as the Decorah eagles fledge, the turkey vultures are hatching. We're hoping people will just switch from one species to the other."
Check out the turkey vulture webcam below (as of Tuesday morning, it had around 700 simultaneous viewers, compared with more than 13,000 for the Decorah eagles):