two Rufous-Motmot birds

Rufous motmot birds seen through the Panama fruit feeder cam. (Photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Birdcams Offer Up-Close Views of Avian Life

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The Lab of Ornithology’s global network of live-streamed cameras brings nature to your desktop (or tablet, or phone)

By Beth Saulnier

The sun never sets on Cornell’s birdcams. With a network of more than a dozen live-streamed cameras located as far away as New Zealand, the Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Cams project offers a constant dose of eye (and ear) candy—from the breeding habits of a bonded pair of Bermuda petrels to groups of colorful tanagers nibbling fruit at a feeder in the mountains of Panama.

“The cameras broadcast these really intimate views that you can’t get otherwise,” says Charles Eldermire, the project’s leader. “They’re views that not only the public enjoy, but that scientists who may have studied these creatures for years have never been able to see with this kind of clarity.”

Closer to home, a cam on East Hill allows far-flung Cornellians to follow the adventures of the University’s beloved red-tailed hawks—the current pair are dubbed Arthur and Big Red—as they tend to their young each spring and summer.

A pileated woodpecker at a bird feeder next to a pond

A cam covers the feeders that hang near the Lab of Ornithology’s pond and visitor center. They attract a variety of species including the pileated woodpecker (center) and northern cardinal (left).

“Many people see hawks as fierce predators, but it’s quite different to see them being gentle with their eggs and caring for their tiny chicks,” Eldermire says. “We’ve gotten to watch an egg crack open and a baby hawk fall out of it—really spectacular stuff.”

The Lab launched its Bird Cams project in 1998, when it started hosting a series of rudimentary nestcams. But given the limitations of late-’90s tech—when cameras had much lower resolution and most homes had slow Internet connections—it wasn’t exactly an immersive experience.

The cameras broadcast these really intimate views that you can’t get otherwise.

Charles Eldermire

“You’d see a single image from a bluebird box, updated every thirty seconds,” says Eldermire. “Nobody was able to watch it very well.”

The current incarnation dates to 2012, by which time technology had evolved to enable streams of high-quality video and sound—and social media had emerged as a way for home viewers to engage with the Lab and with each other.

(Since some of the cams are geared toward breeding seasons, they're offline at certain times of the year; others may be down temporarily due to technical issues.)

Now, each camera has—naturally—its own Twitter feed, offering regular updates on the action, sometimes in minute detail.

a close up of a red-tailed Hawk
Since 2012, a pair of hawks has nested on a light pole above the Big Red athletic fields. The hawks have alternated between two poles over the years, so the Lab of Ornithology has cameras on both.

“Arthur returns with yet another stick & gently places on BR,” @CornellHawks tweeted one morning, along with a quartet of photos. “BR stands & departs the nest as Arthur takes over morning incubation duties.”

For some viewers, the cams offer their first up-close look at the lives of birds—and occasionally, they see nature red in tooth and claw. Eldermire recalls that when the Lab had a camera trained on a great blue heron nest in 2012, a great horned owl attacked the female while she was incubating her eggs; heron fans were outraged.

Two barred owls in a birdhouse
The barred owls cam in Indianapolis, Indiana, has a view of an owl box hanging in a hickory tree more than 30 feet above the ground. It’s equipped with an infrared light so viewers can watch the birds’ nocturnal comings and goings.

A couple of years later, a camera on a great horned owl nest showed the residents dining on similar marsh birds, like great egrets—but since that cam’s aficionados were rooting for the predators, they openly admired the owls’ hunting prowess. Says Eldermire: “A lot of it comes down to how you identify with the individuals.”

These days, some two million people view one of the Lab’s cams each month. They serve as an educational tool for schoolchildren, as a neutral background in dentists’ offices, as entertainment for housecats, as a welcome taste of nature for city dwellers, and more.

Five adult albatross and a chick with a view of a lake and mountains
Each year, the northern royal albatross cam in New Zealand focuses on a different breeding pair of the birds—banded by the national Department of Conservation—that are nesting in the Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve at the end of Otago Peninsula.

“We’ve had feedback from people who don’t have great eyesight and put up the image really big on their screen,” Eldermire says. “They say it has profoundly changed their relationship with the natural world, because they can see birds again.”

And thanks to infrared illumination, some cams even offer nighttime views—allowing fans to follow their feathered friends 24/7. “I’ve been hearing from a lot of people,” he says, “that it can be really comforting to watch a bird sleep.”

Follow the lives and habits of birds around the world with these other Lab of O birdcams (please note that, due to a focus on breeding seasons or occasional technical issues, not all cams are live at any given time):

Five Collared-Aracari birds in the rainforest

Panama fruit feeders

El Valle de Antón, Panama

The cam is located on the grounds of a lodge, whose staff fills the feeders regularly—so guests can enjoy visits by such species as these collared aracari.


a California Condor standing

California condor

Huttons Bowl, California

Located in a remote canyon near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, the nest is home to a breeding pair that’s part of a decades-old effort to save the critically endangered species.


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two Lance-tailed Manakin birds

Lance-tailed manakins

Boca Chica, Panama

The birds—which thrive in the thick underbrush that grows beneath the tree canopy—are abundant in this area of dry tropical forest, at the eastern end of Isla Boca Brava.


An American Kestrel in a nesting box with five eggs

American kestrels

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin

The kestrels typically return to their box—located on the side of a barn overlooking rolling grassland—in February or March, then lay eggs in April or May. The fledglings stay nearby until late summer.


A close up of an osprey's head

Hellgate ospreys

Missoula, Montana

The nest is situated on a platform that’s near a river at the mouth of Hellgate Canyon but is also by a highway and other human activity. Happily, that doesn’t bother the birds, and allows myriad in-person viewings.


a Savannah Osprey

Savannah ospreys

Savannah, Georgia

This abandoned bald eagle nest, near a salt marsh along the Georgia coast, was formerly home to a pair of great horned owls; an osprey couple has used it since 2017.


Five Evening Grosbeaks at a bird feeder

Ontario feeders

Manitouwadge, Ontario, Canada

Located in a large backyard in a residential neighborhood, the feeders attract such species as these evening grosbeaks as well as redpolls, jays, and ruffed grouse.


a White-tailed Tropicbird and chick

White-tailed tropicbird

Nonsuch Island, Bermuda

There are about 200 pairs of the birds on the island, where dozens of artificial nests (including one housing the cam) have been installed to replace natural cliff cavities destroyed by hurricanes and erosion.


A black and white photo of a petrel in a burrow

Bermuda petrels

Nonsuch Island, Bermuda

The camera is in a manmade burrow that’s home to a breeding pair who were relocated there as chicks through a conservation program. The birds, also known as cahows, produce only one egg a year and generally mate for life.


A great blue heron at the edge of a pond

Sapsucker Woods pond

Ithaca, New York

Viewers can enjoy not only some of the many species found in Cornell’s birding preserve (including this great blue heron), but aquatic creatures like turtles and frogs.


Broad-billed Hummingbirds at a bright red feeder

West Texas feeders

Fort Davis, Texas

The site, in the mountains at around 5,800 feet of elevation, hosts more than 30 feeders that can attract hundreds at a time during peak migration, including these broad-billed hummingbirds.

Top image: Rufous motmot birds seen through the Panama fruit feeder cam. (All photos courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Published December 10, 2021


Comments

  1. John Fatherley, Class of 1964

    Love the work that Cornell does to bring us such beautiful birds.

  2. audrey hendler, Class of 1979

    For the last two years ravens have nested in my barn and had their young. I have been able to watch them grow and fledge. If they come back this spring would you be I retested in setting up a cam?

    Audrey
    Germantown NY

  3. Donna (Yankner) Michelson, MD, Class of 1978

    I love sharing the pics of these beautiful birds with my grandson, Noah, who is 3 1/2. I was never into “birds” as an undergrad at Cornell, but I visited the Ornithology Lab in 2019 and was hooked!
    Thank you for bringing this brightness into our lives!

  4. Andrew Goldstein, Class of 1969

    In the 1960s, long before I discovered mindfulness meditation practice, Cornell’s ornithology lab was the best way to center myself by observing and appreciating the avian world. It was a great and rewarding escape.

  5. Linda G Bandler, Class of 1962

    Loved the pictures. Keep up the good work.

  6. Sally Lewis Morgan, Class of 1961

    How do I subscribe to the bird webcam?

  7. Kathleen Niven Lechner,

    What a joy to see these beautiful creatures! Thank you for sharing them and helping them survive. I grew up in an apartment with a small bird in a cage for a brief time. Now I have a back yard and see birds there. My grandson is in college in Florida majoring in History but in one of his classes he is writing a paper on a bird he sees there called an American purple gallinule.

  8. Kathleen Niven Lechner,

    When I pressed Post, my comment disappeared. So this is another brief comment:
    I enjoyed your bird photos very much, thank you.

  9. Lucinda McWeeney, Class of 1968

    What joy to be reminded of the bird cams. How do I gain access to this remarkable resource?

  10. Michaline (Spina) Bruyninckx, Class of 1979

    I remember visiting the ornithology lab in the summer of ‘78 to bring in an injured bird. I spent an hour watching the birds through the viewing window at the visitor center. If I ever get back to Ithaca, going to the ornithology center is tops on my list.

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