Texas Barn Owls: 2017 Update

Dear Bird Cams Community,

Thank you for waiting so patiently while our Texas Barn Owl cam has been offline since last summer. As we shared with you at the time, it was important for us to be able to sort through last season’s tumultuous events, listen to your feedback, and weigh how best to move forward. After much thought, discussion, and soul-searching, we have decided to keep the cam offline and to seek a new location for a Barn Owl cam.

We recognize that this will come as disappointing news to many of you since we all love the Barn Owls that have been featured on this cam and have followed them for many years. Some of you may even feel frustration or anger at the Lab or at one another for this outcome. It’s important for you to know that our Bird Cams staff loves and appreciates the cam community—all of you, with your diverse and sometimes opposing viewpoints. Your reactions to the lives of these Barn Owls came from a place of passion and caring, and that is a good thing in a world where we wish even more people would care about birds.

During the past year, we have learned a lot about our own strengths and shortcomings in this new and challenging world of live streaming and social media. So much has changed since we launched the Barn Owl cam more than a decade ago. We’d like to share with you what we learned and invite you to join us in looking ahead to the future.

Bird Cams—Then and Now

In 2005, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology launched the Texas Barn Owl cam, thanks to the foresight and generosity of a cam host who enjoyed witnessing amazing events in an owl box through a cam on the property and who wanted to share that view with people around the world to increase the appreciation and understanding of birds.

At the time, because of bandwidth limitations and costs, we could transmit only one still image every 30 seconds and only 25 people could watch simultaneously! People enjoyed keeping up with the owls’ daily lives, reading posts from our scientists about the birds’ behaviors, and exchanging comments. It was one of the first cams anywhere in the world to stream real-time images of wildlife to the public.

Live streaming has come a long way since then. Today, there are more than 400 cams that stream wild birds from around the world, according to viewbirds.com. In 2012, we switched to high-definition, 24/7 live streaming with the goal of providing high-quality viewing experiences and year-round opportunities to learn about diverse birds from many locations, including endangered and little-known species.

With generous support from viewers who make it possible to keep our cams streaming, millions of people from more than 180 countries have now watched 17 of our cams featuring dozens of species, helping us meet that goal. We have been astounded by the communities that have formed around these cams, as together we have watched, shared, and documented the lives of these birds in unprecedented detail, often revealing new questions, insights, and discoveries.

In this June 2015 clip, the youngest Barn Owl devours a mouse delivered by a parent.

Social media has also come a long way ever since our Barn Owl cam debuted. For example, in 2005, Facebook had 5.5 million active users; today that number is more than 1.7 billion. Social media is both a blessing and a challenge. At its best, it enables phenomenal sharing and community-building, spreading knowledge and appreciation, and deepening bonds between people who share common passions. At its worst, its misuse can perpetuate misunderstandings and polarize or even destroy online communities.

Last year’s events—the starvation and deaths of young owls at the nest—were not new to this cam or to other Barn Owl cams around the world. Barn Owls are known for their naturally high nest failure rates. Unlike some other owl species which lay only a few eggs with a higher probability of successfully raising them all, a Barn Owl’s strategy is to lay more eggs than it is likely to be able to support. This enables them to capitalize on raising many young in years when prey are abundant, but otherwise they take heavy losses.

It has never been easy to watch a nest fail, whether because of predation, starvation, or any other cause. What made last year different was the use of social media as a divisive tool. Frustrated viewers used social media posts to try to reveal the identity of the anonymous host and cam location, made disparaging remarks about other viewers, and directed threats and words of hate and profanity toward the Cornell Lab of Ornithology through Twitter, Facebook, and other channels.

In the past, we had seen similar negativity directed at other cam hosts and institutions, in some cases causing the hosts to take their cams offline for good. We considered this option, too. We also heard the voices of many viewers who urged us not to let negativity discourage us from continuing to stream a cam that overall generates so many positives: joy, learning, sharing, insights, and knowledge. Yet clearly, something had to change. And the opportunity for change, we thought, begins with us.

Our Priorities: Science and Community

More than ever, we realize the importance of engaging viewers in the science involving the birds they’re witnessing. Events on the Barn Owl cam raised many questions that we and other viewers could help answer based on the scientific literature and previous observations, but many more questions might have been answered if we had a Barn Owl expert on hand. Were other owl families nearby struggling as the result of the record-breaking flooding, too? Who was the mystery owl who carried off one of the nestlings? An expert suggested that, based on similar observations elsewhere, it could have been a starving juvenile from a neighboring nest who was looking for a handout when things went awry, but since this population was not being studied, we can’t say for sure.

If the cam had been part of a larger study, we would have had valuable context about the Barn Owl population in the area, not only during one season, but across multiple years. Viewers also pointed out the value of insights that could be gained if the owls were individually banded or tracked with devices such as radio tags or satellite transmitters.

After our cam went offline last season, viewers helped us keep learning about Barn Owls by sharing what was happening on other cams. What they observed was eye-opening in a few ways. As with our cam, viewers shared that other cams from locations as far away as California and Holland also experienced losses when one or more nestlings could not get enough food. As they had on our cam, viewers witnessed intriguing and seemingly inexplicable behaviors, such as a third adult at one of the cams who was attempting to provision the young. And viewers had burning questions about these other cams, too, with little scientific information to go on.

We are now excited about looking into the possibility of streaming a Barn Owl cam that is part of an ongoing scientific study, with an expert who would be willing to answer questions about what we see on our cam and others, and to document new insights from the cams for the scientific literature. This would strengthen the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s goal to engage viewers in science to improve the understanding of birds.

In addition to supporting the cam with more scientific interpretation, we learned that we have to be more personally engaged with our cam community. We had not earned the trust or understanding of enough of our viewers, so during a time of distress, they viewed the Lab of Ornithology as something “other,” an entity to be vilified. When we had the opportunity to speak with or exchange email messages with those who had been most upset with us, they explained that they had lashed out because they felt powerless to be heard any other way. If we are able to launch another Barn Owl cam in the future, we will need to add staff or build a larger volunteer base to help us with continual outreach, including making people feel heard and welcomed to express different viewpoints.

Live Wildlife Cams: A Brave New Genre

One of the most helpful discussions we had with viewers was about how live wildlife cams are an entirely new, emerging genre of media. Some viewers told us they love the opportunity to see nature the way it is—raw, unedited, with all its surprises—joyful as well as heart-wrenching. Others said they wished only to see the joyful parts, thinking it irresponsible to expose audiences to cruel circumstances. Still others wished they could change the storyline of what they were watching by intervening.

In a lighthearted 2015 moment, the young owls are entertained by a fly in their nest box.

No matter how you feel, it’s true that in the world of entertainment, people aren’t used to seeing nature as it is. Wildlife documentaries respect your emotional boundaries, pulling away when it gets most difficult to watch. Movies put you through suspense but wrap up with a satisfying ending. We had not made clear enough on our website that our main purpose in streaming the cams is to let you see as much as you wish of the lives of birds as they are in the wild. We encourage you to watch our cams if you want to see what raw nature reveals; if you don’t, there are many other options you can enjoy through other kinds of cams or programming.

Given that birds lead challenging lives, watching live cams can be difficult at times and will continue to be controversial. Most people are aware that they may see disturbing events when watching live cams. Sometimes it happens suddenly, such as when a predator carries off a nestling. In contrast, starvation happens over a prolonged period—hours and even days. Viewers have told us it puts them in the position of feeling personally responsible as if they can or should take action.

The debate about whether to interfere is rooted in deeply held differences about the role of humans in nature. Some people will always demand to alleviate suffering of any kind and wish to rescue any animal experiencing a hardship. Others come to see that nature works the way it does for a reason and that, as difficult as it may be to stand by, birds should be allowed to care for their own young because, even while risking failure, it’s what ultimately gives them the best chance of survival. Death, when it does occur, can sustain other animals in the ecosystem—whether a predator who may take a nestling in order to feed its own young, or an owlet consuming its deceased sibling to gain strength and live another day, perhaps to fledge.

Understanding nature is critical if we are to be effective stewards of our planet, and we have learned a lot by watching. For example, when a rat snake entered the nest box in 2015, we were awed by Dottie’s response: in the blink of an eye, she grabbed the snake, fought with it, and flung it out of the nest, saving the lives of her nestlings. She showed us that Barn Owls sometimes prevail even though the owls in this box were not so fortunate in 2010, when a snake consumed the young. We also learned how weather extremes affect breeding success. For example, the nest failed during the drought of 2009. And during last year’s record-breaking rainfall, Casper disappeared and four of the young starved.

In this May 2015 video, Dottie appears to hear a snake, then strikes out to grab it. Afterward, she gathers up her nestlings that had been flung about the box during the interaction.

Each year when food was scarce, viewers asked us to intervene. If we had, we might have taken nestlings from their parents that might otherwise have survived in the wild, as did little Ollie, against the odds, in 2015. In 2016, if we had added food to the nest, we might have made it impossible for the young owls to survive in the long-run. As a single parent, Dottie had trouble provisioning even one nestling. Young Barn Owls depend on their parents to supply them with food for weeks after fledging, and if all six juveniles had been artificially supplemented, it is unlikely she would have been able to keep up with feeding them all when they left the nest.

Our takeaway is not that humans should save lives by adding food to a nest, but by protecting habitats so owls and other birds can survive on their own. Given what Barn Owls are telling us, we should also work to slow climate change to minimize the widespread failures that may occur during weather extremes such as drought or flooding. Many viewers have told us that by watching the cams, they have learned firsthand about the challenges that wild birds face, and that they have become inspired to do what they can to change their own lifestyle and tread more lightly on the planet.

Whether or not you choose to watch, Barn Owls will experience successes and failures as they have for millennia. We do sometimes wonder whether the genre of live streaming natural events at Barn Owl nests will manage to survive the social media age. For now, we are listening to our viewers who say we should not give up: they do want the chance to see nature as it is, and to keep learning from the lives owls.

Look at the word “community” and you can see it has the word “unity” within it. Unity doesn’t mean everyone agrees all the time. Debate is at the foundation of science, and universities exist to foster divergent viewpoints. But in a community, people recognize that they have something in common, and they interact with one another respectfully, even when they agree to disagree. It’s our goal to keep looking for new opportunities to stream live footage of Barn Owls and other species, and to support a positive community of people who want to keep watching and learning together.

Watching the Barn Owl camera, we learned what a fierce defender Dottie was of her young. In this May 2016 clip she chases an unknown owl away after it attempted to steal prey she was delivering for her owlets.

A Tribute to the Owls and Our Cam Host, and Our Thanks to You

Although viewers tell us that events on the Texas Barn Owl cam were sometimes shocking and upsetting to watch, many of the same people said they would not trade the experience given all the wonderful moments they witnessed too, and everything they learned about owls along the way. Every year our staff at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology worried with you and celebrated with you throughout the ups and downs in the daily lives of Barn Owls.

We were always learning something new—whether in that first year when we realized just how amorous Barn Owls are with their frequent mating, or in this last year as the owls reminded us of how resilient they are when Dottie reappeared three days after we thought she had abandoned the nest and, finding her owlet gone, tolerated a newcomer in the box the next day and mated with him a mere two days later.

We speak for the entire community when we express our gratitude to the cam host who maintained the property to provide habitat for owls and other wildlife, and who selflessly shared a window into the world of Barn Owls so that others might enjoy and learn from it too. Featured on our flagship cam beginning in 2005, the Texas Barn Owls captured the hearts and minds of people of all ages and led to our robust cam program today, most recently featuring Bermuda cahows, a species once thought to be extinct. We thank our cam host for sharing and helping us grow the vision for the Bird Cams from their inception all the way to today as we look to the future.

Finally, we owe our thanks to you, the community of people who were watching all the time, alerting us about the latest developments you saw on the cam, asking questions and sharing your observations, screenshots, videos, and art. You helped keep our cams streaming with your donations, and you lifted our spirits with your kind words, even in the most difficult times.

We consider ourselves lucky to have had the privilege of watching this dynasty of owls for 12 years. The nest box will remain in place, as it was before we ever began streaming any images. Though the Bird Cams team will no longer be monitoring this nest live, we’ll leave the camera there to record footage to a hard drive, adding to the valuable record of data collected from this longstanding nest. We’ll be able to check the footage at the end of the season to let you know how the family fared. Meanwhile, retired from the live-streaming spotlight, the owls at this site will continue to lead their lives as they did before the cams. Thank you for your patience as we look ahead to future possibilities. We will, as always, keep you posted.

Yours sincerely,

Miyoko Chu, senior director, Communications

Charles Eldermire, Bird Cams project leader

Ben Walters, Bird Cams communication specialist

The Cornell Lab

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