Watch a great blue heron dad upchuck a nest full of small fish for his clacking brood of babies. See a red-tailed hawk mom plop a pigeon into its nest and methodically start doling out dinner to her youngsters.
It’s reality programming at its finest — found on the Internet at allaboutbirds.org – a site operated by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca.
A pair of red-tailed hawks — Ezra and Big Red, named after the school’s founder and mascot, respectively — started their family of three about two months ago. An unnamed pair of great blue herons began its family of five in a nearby swamp at about the same time. Cornell put up cameras near the nests and gave everyone with a computer the opportunity to watch those families grow up.
Since then, thousands have logged on to the sites each day to watch eggs get laid, birds get hatched, raised, and then leave the nests. The process of leaving the nest that takes human children 18 to 45 years to complete, these birds do in 40 to 60 days. And, like human children, they have their own captivating share of “firsts.”
The first time the chicks are able to stand on their own. The day they are able to eat their meals without being fed by mama or papa. The day they start “wingercizing” to strengthen themselves to fly. The day they fledge, or fly away from the nest. The day they return to the nest to get fed because they haven’t yet learned to hunt food on their own.
The birdwatchers on the site — which numbered as high as 8,000 on the days the hawks were expected to fledge — were cheerleaders and worrywarts. They were nervous when the chicks didn’t accomplish something they were supposed to right away. They were excited when they did. They were parents watching their kids grow up.
I suspect very few of them actually saw the firsts happen live. Nature didn’t seem to schedule its big events around the limited times people with jobs could check on the families.
Posts common in the bird cam chat room often went something like these:
“I am sure number one is going to fledge in 10 minutes, because that is when I have to go back to work.”
“I’m back. Did number three fledge? No? Oh, goodie. Go NOW number three, go NOW. I am only here for a little bit. You can do it. GO. GO. GO.”
“Number two fledged when I answered the door to get a Federal Express delivery. DRAT!”
The joy and enthusiasm of the human onlookers was infectious. But the birds, of course, developed at a pace dictated by nature. They did things when they were ready, oblivious to all the eyes that were upon them.
The team at Cornell was there full-time, so videos were always quickly posted for those of us who missed a big event live. And, boy, did these reruns make the bird-watchers go all aflutter.
“Oh, the baby fledged so beautifully. She left with so much more grace than her brothers.”
“Number two returned to the nest with strength and confidence he sure didn’t have when the wind accidentally pushed him from the fledge ledge.”
“I’ve got tears in my eyes ... our babies are all grown up.”
This kind of emotion directed at birds would be something I in most cases would be inclined to make fun of. They are, after all, just birds.
The problem is I found myself fully understanding such emotions as I followed the hawk family’s journey from birth to empty nest. I’d be making fun of myself.
One night long after the hawklets were mostly on their own and rarely seen on camera anymore, I sat eating dinner in front of my laptop watching a live feed of the empty nest ... hoping just one of the babies would fly in to say good night.
There were 800 other birdwatchers doing the same thing. Eight-hundred people watching a pile of sticks.
The fun at the hawk nest is pretty much over. But it’s worth bookmarking the website for next year. I don’t have the words to describe how fascinating, captivating, touching it is to follow the rapid development of these beautiful creatures and their doting parents. You’ll have to see it for yourselves to understand.
You still have time to catch the herons fledging. The babies have sprouted to where it’s getting hard to tell them from their parents, but they haven’t left the nest yet. They are “wingercizing.” They are venturing out onto long tree limbs near the nest and flapping to high heaven. They are spreading their wings. It won’t be long before they fly.
There might just be a tear welling up in the corner of my eye. Our babies are all grown up.