Charles Eldermire

Understanding nature through Bird Cams


For three consecutive nights this April, on PBS and Facebook, the 'Nature' series presents 'American Spring LIVE, ' a real-time look at arguably the most anticipated season of the year, when rising temperatures and longer days trigger dramatic transformations in plants and animals.

Leading up to that premiere, we welcome Charles Eldermire, from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, via Google Hangout.

Charles is a project leader for Bird Cams Lab, a project at Cornell where the use of fixed cameras, or bird cams, are allowing the public to become citizen scientists and contribute to our understanding of nature.

It's all a part of the upcoming special 'American Spring LIVE.' So, first of all, bird cams kind of became a little more popular when zoos put them on rare birds or when there was a baby bird that was about to be -- But they're a lot more than that.

Yeah, you're spot on.

So, if you go back maybe 6 or 7 years, there was a real explosion of live animal cameras, both in zoos, but I would argue that even in natural settings was where the popularity really surged.

So, back in 2011, 2012, there was a very popular eagle camera in Decorah, Iowa, that kind of took the nation by storm.

And this happened at just the right time, where people had broadband access in their houses.

Streaming technology progressed to the point where you could stream something that looked pretty nice, from a pretty wide place.

And a nation's imagination was really captivated the moment they had a chance to have these sort of intimate, minute-by-minute views of these beautiful wild animals.

And here you are now with thousands of eyes, so to speak, watching something, watching something that sometimes, really, the folks inside the lab don't have the time to watch nearly as closely.

So how do you harvest all that potential?

That's a great point.

You know, the thing that makes these cameras so different from thinking about science in a sort of more typical sense is that, often, it would just be a scientist or a scientist and her field assistants that would be gathering data on animals in the wild.

And in the case of live animal cameras, like our bird cams, there's the potential for literally thousands of eyes to be trained upon that same view and the opportunity for different perspectives, as well as different interests to play a role in kind of both answering questions, but also asking questions.

And that's really where Bird Cams Lab kind of sets itself apart from other citizen-science model.

So, give me an example of how it would work at your bird lab.

Yeah, so, for example, for the first 4 to 5 years of our red-tailed-hawk cam here at Cornell University, viewers were really interested in what sort of prey the adult hawks were bringing in to feed the young.


And the first couple years, people were fairly religiously posting pictures of these items, as they'd come into the next, to Twitter.

And then we would collate them and kind of make a summary at the end of the year.

But by the third year, that same public had come up with their own sort of cloud-hosted spreadsheet, hosted on Google Docs, where data was being entered for every prey item that was brought, who was bringing it.

And it was really the public that was pushing kind of the gathering of that information forward.

And, you know, it allowed us to gather, essentially, a census of all of the prey items that were required to basically bring these three young nestling hawks from hatch to fledge.

So, around 'American Spring LIVE, ' what are you hoping for?

Well, we're really hoping for people to actually step outside maybe what they might be comfortable with or to at least extend their imagination to think of the fact that they have eyeballs like anyone else does, right?

They have brains like anyone else does.

And those two things, as well as your ears and other senses, are actually the same tools that scientists are using to sort of think about what's interesting about what they're seeing.

What's an interesting question?

And, so, the idea that somebody may or may not be an expert isn't always important when it comes to having different perspectives on what has been observed, and those perspectives driving new and interesting questions.

So, the first part would be, I guess, the public understanding that they can make valid and interesting questions.

Sometimes, those questions have been answered pretty well and according to the process and, you know, other research projects.

But the cool thing about these live cams is that it's sort of a 24/7 record of what's happening in these nests.

And because of that, it actually is a different period of time than most scientists had ever sort of had the opportunity to view a wild animal.

There's no way that a group of scientists could look at all 24 hours of footage every day for a whole year and figure out the entire diet of a red-tailed hawk, right?

So it's a way where you're saying that the crowds that are following it are actually helping you do that science.

That's correct.

Yeah, it's not so much that it couldn't be done, but that it takes a lot of time, energy, funding to collect those kind of data.

And, really, what it's allowing is for the enthusiasm and interest of that viewing audience to actually be sort of multitasking, right?

They're not only enjoying what they're seeing, they're captivated by this view into these birds's lives, but they're given the opportunity to share what they're seeing and to understand that what they're seeing, those observations they're making are just as valid as what, you know, a scientist might record in that same situation.

From the Bird Cams project, Charles Eldermire.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you very much.

It's been great being here.