Decorah Bald Eagles
The Decorah Bald Eagles (also known as Decorah Eagles or variations) is a website featuring a live-streaming webcam trained on a bald eagle nest and family in Decorah, Iowa. The Raptor Resource Project installed and runs the live stream for research purposes.
Filmed in real time, the parents can be seen delivering a variety of freshly-caught prey, feeding the eaglets, and protecting them from predators and harsh weather. With the help of infrared lighting, the nest is viewable around the clock during the nesting season, which typically begins in January or February, with fledge in June.
The Decorah Eagles became an Internet phenomenon and the most viewed live-stream of all time in 2011 when the website reached 250 million views on Ustream, with roughly 2.4 million views per day. Ustream began hosting the video feed in 2011, although the live-cam was initiated in 2007, and was used to provide footage for the PBS Nature documentary "American Eagle'" released in 2008.
Viewers missed the 2013 season after the eagle couple built and moved to an alternate nest. Cameras were installed in the new nest in time for the 2014 filming season, when the couple selected it again.
PBS's Nature series released American Eagle in 2008, a documentary featuring the now famous Decorah Eagles. The hour-long piece includes the death of the male's first mate, who disappeared during a snowstorm, and the subsequent courtship, nest-building and mating with "Mom", his mate since the winter of 2007.
The live webcam was set up in 2007 by the Raptor Resource Project (RRP), Xcel Energy and Dairyland Power, and was upgraded to live-streaming by Ustream in 2011. The Decorah Eagles' Ustream channel features the bald eagle couple from Decorah, Iowa as they build and repair their nests, mate, lay eggs, struggle with bad weather and predators, and care for and protect their young. The parents take turns incubating the eggs. Over 280 million people have observed the progress of the eagle family "from eggs to fledgling birds".
Identifying the eagles
The Decorah Eagles are not given names in order to prevent viewers from regarding them as pets. According to the Raptor Resource Project, "traditional names can create an undue tendency to anthropomorphize. While the human emotion that may be attached to the eaglets is understandable, an alpha-numeric system for referencing them may help us distance ourselves to observe the wonder of wildlife and nature at work". In 2011 the eaglets were simply called E1, E2 and E3. After the 2011 season, a new system was designed as a way to keep track of the couple's entire progeny. The eaglets are now designated by serial numbers: D (for their region, Decorah) and a number based on the order they are born, beginning with the couple's first hatch. Thus, the 2012 clutch became known as D12, D13 and D14.
The parents are known as M and D for "Mom" and "Dad". The adult plumage (white feathers covering head, neck and tail) develops when bald eagles are sexually mature, between 4 and 5 years of age. The species is placed in the genus Haliaeetus (sea eagles) which gets both its common and scientific names from the distinctive appearance of the adult's head. Bald in the English name is derived from the word piebald, meaning "white headed".
The Decorah Mom is younger than Dad, and is easily differentiated by her "eyeshadow" and darker feathers interspersed with the white ones on her head and tail. Dad has a fully white head and tail and is noticeably smaller than Mom; male bald eagles are normally 25% smaller than females.
Two nests are in use by the couple. Both sit atop cottonwood trees standing about 400 feet apart overlooking a fresh stream, next to a trout farm. The original nest (N1), used by the couple from 2007-2012, is estimated to measure 6.5 feet in diameter, with a radius of 3.25 feet.
In the fall of 2012, the Decorah parents built an 'alternate nest', referred to as "N2", 400 feet away from N1. While 45 percent of all bald eagle couples build multiple nests, it was a first for the Decorah pair. The Raptor Resource Project waited until the 2013 clutch was "on the wing" before installing live-streaming cameras above the new nest, so there was no filming of the 2013 season. N2 was fitted with cameras, microphones and cables, including "a remotely operated pan-tilt-zoom camera [and] a fixed infra-red cam for night viewing" at a cost of more than $17,000.
In 2014, the parents chose to use N2 for the second year in a row. The 2014 live-stream season began in early February. The first egg of the 2014 season, Mom's 18th ("D18"), was laid on February 23. Eggs are laid 2–3 days apart, and hatching begins 35–39 days after the first egg appears. The Decorah female typically lays three eggs each season. By March 3, D19 and D20 had arrived.
Bob Anderson of RRP expressed concern about the extremely cold temperatures during what he called the Decorah pair's "most challenging nesting season". "I’m very worried" he said, "In all my years I’ve never seen eagles lay eggs in subzero weather before...one of the parents will have to stay on the nest at all times to keep the eggs from freezing." Anderson left nesting material of dry grass and straw in a local field, which the male later collected and used to "reline the nest". Anderson explained,
- "That nest is totally frozen from the rain we got last week...It rained and then it froze, so this nest is one giant ice cube...It's a chance this egg could freeze...and maybe tomorrow's egg, and then I'm hoping by Saturday, by the time we get the last egg, that maybe the temperatures have climbed a little bit and we're not in this sub-zero weather."
Anderson said that the possibility existed that none of 2014's three eggs would hatch due to freezing temperatures, but held out hope for D20, whose egg arrived during warmer weather when the nest was well-insulated with snow. The RRP said that although eggs normally take from 35–39 days, the 2014 season's unusually cold temperatures could mean the eagles will stay inside the eggs longer. They wrote on their Facebook page, "If that’s the case, the first egg will hatch on April 3, the second on April 6 and the last one on April 10."
- Given the extreme cold and heavy snow, we weren’t sure any of the eggs would hatch...the eagles persevered through 40-below wind chills, direct temperatures of 20 below, multiple snowfalls, one of which covered the nest with over 10 inches of snow, and drenching rain...[the parents] diligently cared for their eggs, taking brief breaks from incubation only when the weather allowed and working almost continuously to bring fresh material in for the nest...We are thrilled their skill and perseverance paid off.
By April 7 all three eaglets had hatched, leaving Anderson "completely amazed".
Tracking the eagles
To aid in the study of bald eagles, a satellite transmitter was attached to a juvenile from both the 2011 and 2012 clutches. According to Bob Anderson, the GPS caused a bit of controversy as fans of the site found it invasive. Anderson said that after people started to see D1's travels and it became clear that she was not negatively affected, they agreed with Anderson that the transmitter project was beneficial. Anderson explained the purpose of the program:
- The parents don't migrate. They stay here year round. But do the babies migrate? We don't know. We're going to find out ... We're actually going to learn a little bit of science here and we're excited about that... with GPS coordinates we'll learn where these babies roam until they reach adulthood and eventually establish their own nest site.
After the birds had been on the wing for a few weeks, RRP worked with an experienced eagle biologist to trap and fit them with a transmitter. The biologist is running a larger scale study with bald eagles, so the birds have become part of that. The transmitter is a backpack-style solar powered transmitter from Northstar Science and Technology. The transmitter is very lightweight, and because the eagles had been on wing for a few weeks, their flight muscles were fully developed, so the harness was able to be fitted properly. A satellite in a polar orbit 'pings' the transmitter several times a day, providing RRP with a latitude/longitude coordinate set that gives researchers the eagle's location within a few hundred feet. The satellite turns on at 10:00 CST each morning.
Raptor Resource Project hosts a map tracking the whereabouts of D1, a female, the second born in 2011. D1 was the tenth eaglet born to the Decorah couple, but was named before the newer identification system was created.
D1 impressed Anderson with her attraction to rivers, her ability to make long flights, and her adventurous spirit. "She has spent time along at least a dozen different rivers, which underscores the importance of maintaining good water quality," he remarked. She was expected to follow the Mississippi River and stay near Iowa or Illinois, but instead went on a 1,000 mile trek to northern Wisconsin and Minnesota before returning to her natal area in January 2011. She surprised researchers by making a 140-mile trip in a single day. D1 flew to an area "closer to Greenland than to Iowa", Anderson noted. After her trip back to Decorah, D1 headed for Polar Bear Provincial Park, some 1,000 miles north of Iowa near the Arctic, on the shores of Hudson Bay in Ontario, Canada.
In December 2012, D1 returned for the second time to Decorah. She had spent the summer above the Arctic Circle, again in Polar Bear Provincial Park. Bob Anderson was able to track and photograph her, and said that when he tried to get in close, she flew away. "This is good. She has a fear of people that can only help her in life."
By 2014, she had logged more than 2,000 miles after making two trips to Hudson Bay.
D14, from the 2012 clutch, lived only a few months and never traveled far from Decorah. The second Decorah juvenile to be fitted with a transmitter was found at the base of a utility pole, electrocuted, in late November 2012. A sibling, D12, suffered the same fate only months earlier in July 2012.
A third eaglet, D18, from the 2014 clutch, met a similar fate on July 8, 2014 when it attempted to land on a high voltage transmission wire near Decorah and was electrocuted.
These are the only known deaths from the Decorah couple's 19 offspring.
In 2011 links to the website went viral, and by the end of the first season it had reached over 200 million people from 184 countries. The eagles have been featured in a wide array of media outlets ranging from tech and pop culture to animal-related websites and news outlets.
Fans with binoculars are even flocking to the Decorah Fish Hatchery to watch from a respectful distance as the attentive parents care for their babies.
Bob Anderson, executive director of the Raptor Resource Project, was interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered and shared his thoughts on the cam's popularity:
- "This is a positive....everybody, when they log on they go 'wow'. It's just good to have something positive to watch with so much bad news in the world".
The Decorah Newspapers printed:
- The bald eagle reality show revealed survival in the harshest weather, love and nurturing from the devoted parents, pecking order squabbles soon forgotten as sibling bonds were forged and multiple lessons in trust, patience and perseverance as the little bandit-masked, bobble-headed hatchlings evolved into beautiful juvenile raptors with distinct personalities and all the skill sets needed to venture out into the wild on their own.
The Decorah Eagles' story was also closely followed by Wired Science. One article about the eagles became their most popular post in 2011. Wired referred to the eagle cam as 2011's "runaway Internet sensation" and noted that they had created their own "online community of eaglophiles". According to Wired, "so many people tuned in, the traffic crashed Wired.com more than once".
According to Forbes, "this no-frills nature video has drawn crazy traffic of the sort that would make Justin Beiber and Beyonce jealous". TechCrunch TV called the Decorah Eagles the web's "biggest reality TV stars" in 2011 and explained their online popularity from a technical standpoint:
- Part of what made the Decorah Eagles feed so popular was that it was so bare bones, just a profile page, and a live stream of a family of eagles doing what they do. But, with the rise of user generated content distribution media (and their popularity), social tools have the power to make the content much more engaging and interactive for viewers.
- The feed didn’t include any bells and whistles to reach a broad audience, but Ustream has added a few features this year to improve upon the Decorah Eagles sitcom experience, including, for starters, night vision, high definition, and panning cameras. The company is also incorporating a “Social Stream” feature, where fans can communicate in a realtime, using an interactive chat module to share their thoughts and cheer on the eagles, as the video streams. (This also includes Facebook and Twitter integration.)
TechCrunch TV head Jon Orlin is a fan of the site. On the phenomenon of the Decorah Eagles' Ustream channel, he said:
- "It’s pretty amazing how this live eagle channel has taken off. There are no (human) actors, writers, or fancy production or graphics. Just mother nature. Actually, it does take some impressive bird cameras and technology infrastructure. Much of the time, there isn’t a lot of action happening. But it's live, compelling, and you don’t want to miss what happens next. If it weren’t available live, it just wouldn’t have the same impact, or, likely the sizable viewership".
Decorah Eagles in the news
On July 1, 2012, one day after the live cam had shut down for the season, the oldest of the season's three eaglets (D12) was found dead at the foot of a utility pole near the nest. D12 hatched on March 27, was branched on June 9 and had fledged on June 13. Authorities believe the cause of death was electrocution. After Raptor Resource Project leaders notified the power company, crews showed up to address the safety concerns by installing a temporary insulation shield on the poles in the area. While power lines are not an electrocution hazard for birds, older poles that are unshielded can be dangerous.
D12's remains were turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service, in accordance with the Eagle feather law. Because the bald eagle is a sacred bird in some North American cultures, D12's feathers are being distributed to qualified Native Americans for use in religious ceremonies through the National Eagle Repository.
The Raptor Resource Project has partnered with artists to raise funds for the eagle cam by selling their photography and books (Frozen Eagles, The EEeee’s & Me, The Decorah Bald Eagles and Three Little Eagles and How They Grew: Jacob’s Story), as well as apparel, mouse-pads, mugs and artwork.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Decorah Bald Eagles.|
- Decorah Eagles on Ustream
- Raptor Resource Project
- Where is D1? Map showing location of first Decorah eaglet fitted with GPS
- Decorah Bald Eagles Collection of images, videos and resources relating to Decorah Eagles
- Ermel Nature Images Decorah Eagles images for viewing or purchase