Prove your humanity

This essay was first published on April 22, 2016

Read Kate St. John’s blog, Outside My Window.

Nestcams and Wildlifecams across Pennsylvania:


Ah, spring! The time of year when we’re glued to our computers and cell phones watching live webcams pointed at the nests of celebrity birds of prey. We’re totally absorbed as they hatch eggs and raise their downy babies.

I’ve been watching nestcams for more than a decade, ever since I helped install my very favorite camera — the peregrine falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. It went live in 2003 because I wanted to keep tabs on Dorothy and Erie, the first pair of peregrines nesting there.

I did it because I was frustrated. I’m the official monitor of Pitt’s peregrine falcons, so my job every spring is to track egg-laying and notify the Pennsylvania Game Commission when the eggs hatch. It’s really hard to do without a camera because the nest is on the inaccessible ledge of a 40-story building. It can’t be seen from any window or from the ground. But thanks to the cam, I know the moment each egg is laid in the gravel bowl they’ve scraped for a nest. I’m addicted.

LISTEN: “Why I’m Addicted to Bird Nestcams”

Over the years, technology has improved significantly—and so has the nestcam’s popularity. I used to be one of a handful of viewers. Now, I’m part of a community of thousands. I used to merely watch. Now, I’m a blogger — and the self-described “peregrine lady” of Pittsburgh. It’s given me a both-sides-of-the-camera perspective.

Most birds refuse to nest in human view, but we camera watchers are thrilled to see and hear the tiny hammering as a baby bird pecks its way out of the reddish-brown shell.

But the nestcam also shows us everything—the good, the bad and the ugly. And when the nestcam family appears to be in trouble—like when an egg doesn’t hatch—it can get emotional. That’s where I can help and reassure people that what looks scary to us is not that dire for peregrine falcons.

That’s because peregrines’ lives are so different from ours. Using our human yardstick to understand them—anthropomorphizing—really leads us astray. For instance, peregrines are not social: They never form flocks, and they care more for their territory than they do for their mates. They won’t defend each other during deadly fights and will immediately bond with the victor. Peregrines don’t grieve.

Dorothy, Pittsburghers' beloved peregrine falcon, pictured here, nested at the Cathedral of Learning for 14 years. She disappeared in November 2015 and her longtime mate, E2, died in March 2016. This spring, a new pair—Hope and Terzo—have taken over the nesting site at the Cathedral of Learning. Photo: Peter Bell

Dorothy, Pittsburghers’ beloved peregrine falcon, pictured here, nested at the Cathedral of Learning for 14 years. She disappeared in November 2015 and her longtime mate, E2, died in March 2016. As of March 2020, a new female named Morela has paired with Terzo and have taken over the nesting site. Photo: Peter Bell

In times of high drama, viewers clamor for intervention or think that—like reality TV—audience votes will change the outcome. But if humans step in, peregrines consider the site unsafe and leave. And then, we’ll never get to see them on camera again.

I tell people patiently and truthfully: If watching this is upsetting you, turn it off. Give yourself a rest. I do.

And sometimes I get caught up in the moment too. I write about them as if they’re human. But I catch myself, and say “Wait. Watch. See what happens. Don’t miss what’s really going on.”

There is much more to their lives than the bit we see on camera. Its view is so narrow. We can’t even see them perched above the nest, watchful, like gargoyles. A nestcam never shows us what’s best about peregrine falcons, like their spectacular hunting dives. From high in the sky, they plummet like a bullet, pulling up at the last second to grab their prey in the air in an explosion of feathers. They never do anything halfway.

Are nestcams worth the emotional rollercoaster? Definitely. They make us care for a species we wouldn’t otherwise get to know. But we don’t really belong in their nest. Our place is to help protect bird habitat—from forests to our backyards—so that birds, and the peregrines that depend on them for food, can thrive.

That’s what the camera helps us see. Plus, at my level of obsession, I couldn’t endure a nesting season without it.