April 4, 2011 -- Who ever thought the noble bald eagle would be a reality television star?
For millions of people, a live video stream showing the inside of an eagle's nest has become an online obsession, with two cameras documenting every moment of the birds' activity, 24 hours a day.
Over 11 million people have clicked on the live feed of an eagle family in Decorah, Iowa, waiting for three little eaglets to hatch in front of the cameras as the mother and father watch carefully over their new brood.
The live stream is operated by the Raptor Resource Project, an Iowa-based non-profit dedicated to preserving birds of prey. The Decorah eagles built their nest in 2007, and the organization rigged up cameras last year.
"The bird cams are an educational tool," said the project's director, Bob Anderson. "Teachers log on, and the birds become a science curriculum. It's a wonderful, close-up view into the intimate lives of birds that you wouldn't get to see normally."
Anderson has been installing bird cams for 20 years with the help of his corporate partner, Xcel Energy, but he said he's been surprised by the popularity of the eagle cam, which has logged visitors from 130 different countries. He has received thousands of thank-you emails from fans of the eagle cam.
"I think what it is, we have a good camera, and we've got a great quality of audio and video," said Anderson. "In turbulent times, this is a happy thing. Everybody loves it, and I think it brings people up."
Two Chicks Hatched, Third Expected in Days
So far, two of three eggs have hatched, with the third eaglet expected to peck its way from its shell within days.
The two fluffy gray chicks can be seen and heard chirping on the feed, craning their necks for food as their parents try to keep them warm. The eggs were laid at the end of February.
Eagle Cam: Cameras Rigged to Nest, 80 Feet Above Ground
The enormous nest, over five feet wide, is perched atop a cottonwood tree near the Decorah Fish Hatchery. The nest is 80 feet up, making the installation of camera gear all the more impressive. In the background of the shot, viewers can see cars and trucks passing on a road far below.
For Anderson's staff of volunteer climbers, who regularly rappel down cliffs to save birds, the camera installation wasn't a huge challenge.
"Going up 85 feet into a tree is actually pretty easy compared to some of the things that we've done," he said.
Two $700 cameras are attached to the tree's limbs a few feet above the nest, equipped with infrared night vision and the ability to pan and zoom to capture details, including the bloody food that the parents bring back to the nest.
According to the Raptor Resource Project, the mother and father eagles have been together for several years and have now successfully hatched eaglets for the last four years.
The Decorah eagles are just the latest animals to hit it big online.
A similar eagle cam, operated by ABC affiliate WVEC in Norfolk, Virginia, has been tracking an eagle's nest for six years, providing an educational experience for classrooms across the country.
Over the years, Amateur zoologists have also used web cams to check on everything from owls to bears, watching live scenes from sometimes fascinating and often mundane animal lives.