The osprey cam at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is trained on a nest near the Massachusetts seaside, and the pair that call it home are now waiting for three eggs to hatch. But for the first spring in a decade, the camera is dark, and a note on the institute’s website offers only a two-sentence explanation.
“Regrettably, the cam will not be operating this season due to the increasingly aggressive actions of certain viewers the last two years,” it begins.
That is a staid reference to cam fans whose emotions about the nest morphed into vitriol — and fighting words. When the osprey mother began neglecting and attacking her chicks in 2014, anxiety exploded among some viewers, as did demands that the institution intervene to save the baby birds. When the same thing happened in 2015, the public passions took a more personal turn.
“It is absolutely disgusting that you will not take those chicks away from that demented witch of a parent!!!!!” one viewer emailed to Jeffrey Brodeur, the communications specialist who ran the camera. Another wrote: “I realize this is nature, but once you put up a cam to view into their worlds it is no longer nature. You have a responsibility to help n save when in need.”
Bird-nest cams have become hugely popular, and spring is when they’re full of action. Millions of viewers log on to see live-streamed egg-laying, egg-incubating and chick-hatching. Along the way, many become attached to the little birds, eager to see them spread their wings and fly.
But nests are also nature, and nature can be nasty. Last month, a Pittsburgh cam’s bald eagles made national news when they fed a small cat to their eaglets.
Many chicks don’t survive their first year: Some starve to death, their carcasses decaying for all the Internet to see. Some are preyed upon by hawks or crows or cats. Some are slain by their nestmates.
And some viewers just can’t handle the tragedy.
Brodeur, who had taken on the camera as a pet project, weathered the ire of the 2014 season and adhered to a policy of refusing to intervene, as advised by osprey experts. The drama revved up again last summer, when the osprey parents weren’t bringing in enough fish for the two chicks. One day in mid-July, Brodeur said, his phone “just starts blowing up.” He looked at the nest, which is on a platform right outside his second-floor office window.
“There’s a lot of wing-flapping going on,” he recalled. “The younger of the two had worked its way to the edge, and the older one went for the kill. Shoved it out of the nest. And it’s all live on camera.”
Brodeur retrieved the chick from the brambles below, but it died of malnourishment at a wildlife center that night. Soon, the other chick began growing weaker. Viewer calls and emails started pouring in, some bordering on threatening.
“It was definitely, if you can’t do something, we’ll do something for you — dot, dot, dot,” Brodeur said.
The Woods Hole experience isn’t unusual, and it’s the reason most nest cam operators publish policies on when they’ll intervene. One Montana osprey cam reminds viewers that it “is not a Disney movie.” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which views its many cams as key tools to recruit new bird-lovers, occasionally puts a warning on the screen when things get gruesome, along with a little context, said Charles Eldermire, who manages the cams.
The lab might, for example, explain that “hatching asynchrony” — when one chick hatches before another — can produce one stronger chick that hogs resources and starves out the others. One time, Eldermire said, a hawk “squeezed the life” out of a starling chick on camera, prompting a warning to viewers that they’d see predation. The lab doesn’t help struggling birds unless their woes are human-caused, like when a chick is tangled in fishing line.
“It’s like watching ‘Game of Thrones.’ You know somebody is going to die, but you don’t know who or how or why. You know one possibility is someone’s not going to die,” Eldermire said.
But, he added: “For people that want us to intervene, all they’re focused on is, ‘We watched this egg get laid, we watched it hatch, and we didn’t come here to watch it die.’”
In 2014, when the chicks featured on a bald-eagle cam in North Fort Myers, Fla., weren’t getting much to eat, some viewers decided to take matters into their own hands. Under cover of darkness, they headed to the nest site and tossed meat into it — a roast, to be specific.
The viewers were never identified, but their actions prompted a scolding on the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam’s Facebook page, reminding them that feeding bald eagles, which are protected, is a federal offense.
That was one example of the “crisis P.R.” that Ginnie Pritchett McSpadden says she has dealt with since her family launched the uber-popular cam four years ago.
They started out with an eagle pair they named Ozzie and Harriet. Then Ozzie was hit by a car, and while he was at a rehab center, another male took his spot. When Ozzie came back, the males fought, and Ozzie succumbed to his injuries. Viewers freaked out, and that was another lesson for the Pritchetts: Don’t name the birds.
“When we named them, people got a very, very human emotional attachment to them,” said McSpadden, who says she generally loves running the cams. “We realized how negative that can be if something goes wrong.”
Other incidents that have caused an uproar: In 2013, the eagles brought a cat into the nest; McSpadden tried to calm viewers by referring to it on a YouTube video as a UFO, or “Unidentified Food Object.” Two seasons in a row, eaglets died and the mother ate their carcasses.
“I won’t lie when I say people have said we’re the worst people in the world because we won’t go save the eaglet that hasn’t eaten in three days,” McSpadden said.
In February, a chick known as E8 was being picked on by its sibling, which the cam noted on its Facebook page is not uncommon. “If you become emotional, we ask you to turn off the cams,” they wrote.
One commenter responded like this: “I for one will not stop fighting to get e8 removed from this nest with every ounce of strength I have. … Shame on all involved!!!”
Last summer, when people started promising to bring ladders to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s campus to pluck the hungry osprey chick from the nest, Brodeur caved.
“Finally, I crossed my Rubicon: I called the state wildlife biologist,” said Brodeur, who, like his oceanographer colleagues, is not a bird expert. “And he was like, ‘Listen, the rules are different. You have a camera on it, and the thing’s going to starve to death on prime time.’”
They removed the chick — and Brodeur knew the nest cam was over.
“All these people who were my enemies were now my best friends, and they were crying victory. I had intervened. They had influenced me,” he said. Also, he said, “I knew I had set a precedent.”
Brodeur says he liked running the nest cam and interacting with viewers — most of them. But he had a full-time job that was getting hard to juggle with the flood of osprey-related calls and emails.
The funny thing is, he said, no one’s seemed to mind that he shut it off. They’ve moved on to another cam, he figures, and will be blissfully oblivious to whatever tragedy plays out at the institution’s nest this year.
“These cameras, in my opinion, aren’t about nature,” he said. “It’s about the people that are watching and how they view nature.”