Last Friday evening a star-shaped fracture formed on the outer surface of a bluish-white, speckled brown egg atop a 70-foot light-tower overlooking the University’s field hockey field, located off Tower Road near Bradfield Hall — home to Cornell’s Red-tailed Hawks, Big Red and Ezra. The two expect additions to their nest.
Cracking through the eggshell with its little beak, the first of the three baby hawks began to break out. Ornithologists refer to this phase of hatching as “pipping.”
By Sunday, the baby bird had pecked a small hole through the egg shell, revealing the tip of its beak. As snow descended into the night the egg continued to hatch.
After keeping the baby hawk warm and protected from the elements throughout most of Monday, Big Red, the mother, finally stood up from the nest — revealing, for the first time, the fluffy, white hatchling at exactly 1:53 pm. The new bird stood oblivious to the nearly 8,000 people watching its emergence on the University’s Ornithology Lab’s video camera.
The Lab of Ornithology has made birdwatching easier and more accessible by installing high-definition BirdCams, essentially high-quality adapted security cameras, in two natural nests out in the wild.
In addition to the BirdCam in the Red-tailed Hawk nest, two more are set up in a Great Blue Heron nest atop a dead white oak tree in the middle of Sapsucker Woods pond outside the Lab’s Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity. Anyone can access the livestream feeds from the Lab’s website and watch the birds — no binoculars necessary.
“We’ve had over half a million people tune in at one point or another over the last month that these cams have been active,” said Charles Eldermire, multi media associate at the Lab of Ornithology and BirdCams project leader. “There has been a really big outpouring not just of excitement but gratitude and interest. People who didn’t really know they liked birds are tuning in, getting hooked and spending hours watching.”
The first hatching event was not the only drama caught on these cameras. Another one of the Red-tailed Hawk chicks hatched Tuesday afternoon and the third egg is pipped and ready to hatch over the course of the next couple of days. And at the other nest, (i.e. that of the herons) three nighttime attacks by a Great Horned Owl have been recorded. Only one of the five herons’ eggs has been damaged, the other four should hatch toward the end of April or the beginning of May, Eldermire said.
These BirdCams are helping ornithologists make discoveries and the public is sitting right there in the front seat, Eldermire said. For example, the lowlight camera at the heron nest has revealed that these birds are much more active at night when they display courtship behavior, copulate, and fly to and from the nest to forage. “It’s not something that’s mentioned in the literature,” Eldermire said. The hawk nest is also equipped with a lowlight camera; however, the backlighting from the greenhouses across the street impede the camera’s lighting compensation making it “difficult for its potential to be realized,” Eldermire said.
On each of the channels, the Lab of Ornithology has a live chat that is moderated by volunteers from the viewer community who can the answer questions that viewers ask. The chat room is mostly in English, Eldermire said, although people from more than 135 countries have viewed the feeds.
Eldermire said that there are plans for five to six more BirdCams online during this breeding season.
“It becomes not only an opportunity to observe and to learn about birds,” Eldermire said, “but also to form an emotional connection to what a bird can represent and how much we share with birds.”
Humans and birds both face a number of struggles in trying to live, Eldermire said. “The wonder and amazement of how supremely evolved these animals are to not only survive but thrive under a wide variety of conditions.”
“That balance between the wonder and discovery and the emotional and lifestyle parallels is a really engaging and powerful part of this whole experience,” he said.
You can check out the BirdCam here!