POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 12, 2011
More than 90 million people have clicked onto what's come to be known as the "eagle cam" and I confess to being one of them.
I admit to the odd, addictive pleasure of spying on a family of birds, monitoring the lives of the parents and their three eaglets day and night with a sense of invading their privacy. But the people at the Raptor Resource Project who set up the cameras say the eagles don't know that lenses are capturing their every move and that the birds aren't disturbed by the devices.
Officially called the Decorah Eagles, the birds are lodged in a nest 6 feet across, 4 feet deep and about half a ton in weight. Assembled by the adult eagles in 2007 — sensibly near a fish hatchery in northeastern Iowa that seems to provide ample food — the nest is where the male and female have raised eight eaglets in the past three years. Watching the chicks and adults in their daily struggle to survive is fascinating. Since the latest brood hatched in early April, the family has endured rain, sleet and heavy snowstorms, the adults spreading wings to shelter their offspring through the bad weather.
At first, when eaglets were tiny, clumsy fuzz balls, they easily nestled under the adults' protective bodies. After a couple of weeks, they could manage to bury only their heads under breast. Now, more than a month old, they rival the adults in size.
Still awkward in undeveloped bodies, they totter and wobble around the nest, pecking at its branches and twigs and jockeying for good position to poop off the side of their aerie. At feedings, they nudge each other and squeeze in as fish, rabbit and muskrat are distributed for consumption by their parents.
For some cam fans, this last activity is unsettling. They get squeamish when the adults fly in clutching lunch, then proceed to tear away fur to get at the pink, nutritive flesh of a squirrel or eviscerate a writhing trout for its yellow-gold egg sacs. It is normal for raptors to kill and eat prey, just as two-legged omnivores do, only most don't usually think about the process when grabbing a plastic-wrapped tray of lamb chops at the supermarket.
Let me stop here. Though the eagle website has a chat room, it disallows remarks about politics, religion and sports and asks for respectful, polite comments focused on the eagles. This site is at www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles.
Project operators don't want people using the fact that eagles mate for life and share the tasks of raising offspring as an argument for traditional marriage. They don't want the chat room to become yet another of forum for screaming invective.
Eagle cam is simply a site for seeing eaglets sprawl in sleep with talons out and gullets full, for observing the male's habit of tidying the nest and snapping at bugs and the female's careful inspection of her brood near sunset. It's for watching the young birds shed gray down, sprout feathers and test wings that will hopefully carry them through the sky someday.
It is an antidote, albeit temporary, for the stresses of busy lives, a distraction from a troubled world and an inspiring reminder of the grace of nature.
Cynthia Oi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.