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The Decorah Bald Eagles (also known as Decorah Eagles or variations) is a website featuring a live streaming webcam trained on a bald eagle nest, which sits at the top of an 80-foot Cottonwood tree in Decorah, Iowa. Ustream began hosting the video in 2010, though the live cam began in 2007. With the help of infrared lighting, the nest is viewable around the clock during the nesting season, which typically begins in January or February, with fledge in June. Filmed in real time, the parents can be seen taking turns catching prey, feeding the eaglets, and keeping them warm. The Decorah Eagles became an internet phenomenon and the most viewed livestream of all time when it reached 250 million live views on Ustream, and has received much attention in the media.
In the Fall of 2012, the Decorah parents began building an alternate nest in a tree 500 away, one without cameras. While 45% of all Bald Eagle couples build multiple nests, it was a first for the Decorah pair. The Raptor Resource Project plans to wait until the 2013 clutch is "on the wing" before installing cameras above the new nest. The parents are expected to choose between the two nests in late January 2013, before laying eggs.
The live webcam was set up in 2007 by the Raptor Resource Project, Xcel Energy and Dairyland Power, but was upgraded to live streaming by Ustream in 2011. The live streaming website shows the parent eagles and their family as they build and repair the nest, mate, lay eggs, struggle with bad weather and predators, and care for their young. The nest is estimated to measure 6.5 feet in diameter, with a radius of 3.25 feet.
PBS's Nature released a documentary called American Eagle in 2008, featuring the now famous couple. The documentary includes the death of the male's first mate, which disappeared during a snowstorm, and the subsequent courtship, nest-building and mating with "Mom".
The Decorah Eagles are not given names in order to prevent viewers from regarding them as pets. According to the Raptor Resource Project, "traditional names can create an undue tendency to anthropomorphize. While the human emotion that may be attached to the eaglets is understandable, an alpha-numeric system for referencing them may help us distance ourselves to observe the wonder of wildlife and nature at work". In 2011 the eaglets were simply called E1, E2 and E3. After the 2011 season, a new system was designed as a way to keep track of the couple's entire progeny. The eaglets are now designated by serial numbers: D (for their region, Decorah) and a number based on the order they are born, beginning with the couple's first hatch. Thus, the 2012 clutch became known as D12, D13 and D14.
The parents are known as M and D for "Mom" and "Dad". The adult plumage (white feathers covering head, neck and tail) develops when Bald Eagles are sexually mature, between 4 and 5 years of age. The species is placed in the genus Haliaeetus (sea eagles) which gets both its common and scientific names from the distinctive appearance of the adult's head. Bald in the English name is derived from the word piebald, and refers to the white head and tail feathers and their contrast with the darker body.
The Decorah Mom is younger than Dad, and is easily differentiated by her "eyeshadow" and darker feathers interspersed with the white ones on her head and tail. Dad has a fully white head and tail and is noticeably smaller than Mom, as bald eagle males are normally 25% smaller than females.
To aid in the study of bald eagles, a satellite transmitter was attached to an eagle from the nest in both 2011 and 2012. Maps tracking their whereabouts can be found for both D1 (a female, the second born in 2011) and D14 (a male, the youngest of the 2012 clutch). D1 was actually the tenth eaglet born to the Decorah couple, but was named before the newer identification system was created. According to Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Resource Project (RRP), the GPS "backpack" caused a bit of controversy as fans of the site found it invasive. Anderson says that after people started to see D1's travels and it became clear she wasn’t negatively affected, they agreed with Anderson that the transmitter project was beneficial. Anderson explains the purpose of the program:
After the birds had been on the wing for a few weeks, RRP worked with an experienced eagle biologist to trap and fit them with a transmitter. The biologist is running a larger scale study with bald eagles, so the birds have become part of that. The transmitter is a backpack-style solar powered transmitter from Northstar Science and Technology. The transmitter is very lightweight, and because the eagles had been on wing for a few weeks, their flight muscles were fully developed so the harness was able to be fitted properly. A satellite in a polar orbit ‘pings’ the transmitter several times a day, providing RRP with a latitude/longitude coordinate set that gives researchers the eagle's location within a few hundred feet. The satellite turns on at 10:00 a.m. each morning.
D1 impressed Anderson with her attraction to rivers, her ability to make long flights and her adventurous spirit. “She has spent time along at least a dozen different rivers, which underscores the importance of maintaining good water quality,” he said. She was expected to follow the Mississippi River and stay near Iowa or Illinois, but instead went on a 1,000 mile trek to northern Wisconsin and Minnesota before returning to her natal area in January 2011. D1 surprised researchers when she made a 140 mile trip in a single day. Presently, she is "closer to Greenland than to Iowa", Anderson notes. After her trip back to Decorah, D1 headed for Polar Bear Provincial Park, some 1,000 miles north of Iowa near the Arctic, on the shores of Hudson Bay in Ontario, Canada, where she remains today.
In December 2012, D1 returned for the second time to Decorah. She had spent the summer above the arctic circle, again in Polar Bear Provincial Park. Bob Anderson was able to track and photograph her, and said that when he tried to get too close, she flew away. “This is good. She has a fear of people that can only help her in life,” Anderson said.
D14, from the 2012 clutch, lived only a few months and never traveled far from Decorah. The second Decorah juvenile to be fitted with a transmitter was found at the base of a utility pole, electrocuted, in late November 2012. A sibling, D12, suffered the same fate only months earlier in July 2012.
They are the only two deaths reported from the Decorah Eagle couple's 12 offspring.
Links to the website went viral, and by the end of the first season it had reached over 200 million people from 184 countries. The Eagles have been featured in a wide array of media outlets ranging from tech and pop culture to animal-related websites and news outlets, and were even part of the NBC game show Jeopardy. The statement "In April 2011, thousands tuned in to watch these baby birds" was worth $400 in the "Webcams" category.
The Huffington Post followed the eagles during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. As stated in an article entitled You Know You're Addicted to the Decorah Eagles When...:
Bob Anderson, executive director of the Raptor Resource Project, was interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered and shared his thoughts on the cam's popularity:
Decorah Newspapers explained,
The Decorah Eagles' story was also closely followed by Wired Science. One Decorah Eagles' article was listed as their "most popular post of 2011". Wired referred to the eagle cam as 2011's "runaway internet sensation" and noted that they had created their own "online community of eaglophiles". According to Wired, "so many people tuned in, the traffic crashed Wired.com more than once".
Forbes printed, "this no-frills nature video has drawn crazy traffic of the sort that would make Justin Beiber and Beyonce jealous".
TechCrunch TV called the Decorah Eagles the web's "biggest reality TV stars" in 2011 and explained their online popularity from a technical standpoint:
TechCrunch TV head Jon Orlin is a fan of the site. On the phenomenon of the Decorah eagles Ustream channel, he said:
The Raptor Resource Project has partnered with artists to raise funds for the eagle cam by selling their photography and books (Frozen Eagles, The EEeee’s & Me, The Decorah Bald Eagles and Three Little Eagles and How They Grew: Jacob’s Story), as well as apparel, mouse-pads, mugs and artwork.
On July 1, 2012, one day after the live cam had shut down for the season, the oldest of the season's three eaglets (D12) was found dead at the foot of a utility pole near the nest. D12 hatched on March 27, was branched on June 9 and had fledged on June 13. Authorities believe the cause of death was electrocution. After Raptor Resource Project leaders notified the power company, crews showed up to address the safety concerns by installing a temporary insulation shield on the poles in the area. While power lines are not an electrocution hazard for birds, older poles that are unshielded can be dangerous.
D12's remains were turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service, in accordance with the Eagle feather law. Because the Bald Eagle is a sacred bird in some North American cultures, D12's feathers are being distributed to qualified Native Americans for use in religious ceremonies through the National Eagle Repository.
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