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Hawk Cam: What Are We Looking for When We Watch Birds?

For the better part of this spring, as I write or look at websites or putter around at home, I’ve kept open in a corner of my screen the Hawk Cam run by the City Desk at The New York Times. The red-tailed hawks, christened Violet and Bobby—like all reality TV stars, they have both a Facebook page and a Twitter feed—built their nest over the winter on a ledge outside the office of NYU’s president; in March, Violet laid three eggs. I started watching in late April, when the City Room blog announced that the eggs were about to hatch. For a while there was no action in the nest, and the situation was starting to look grim. On The New York Times site, hawk experts debated whether any signs of life could be seen in the eggs and finally decreed that time had run out for them to hatch. But the optimists won out on May 6, the Friday before Mother’s Day, when a single eyas (that’s the technical name for a hawk chick) at last appeared.

This is not, I admit, true birdwatching. People who watch birds tend to take a certain pride in the associated discomfort: You’re getting up at dawn to slog through dewy fields, or lying on your back in the woods in the middle of the night, waiting for an owl to pass overhead. Not to mention that birds are small, high up, and fast-moving, so even with a pair of heavy binoculars clunking around your neck, it can be tough to get a good look—much less to identify what you’re looking at. But if there’s no sport in watching a bird cam, the view makes up for it. In addition to the NYU hawks, I’ve been checking out extraordinary live feeds from nests all over, including a family of bald eagles in Iowa and a close-up view of nesting hummingbirds in California.

But I keep coming back to the hawks. They’re famous for stoking obsession: Marie Winn’s charming book Red-Tails in Love chronicles the Central Park birdwatchers’ fixation on Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk who made headlines more than a decade ago as the first of his kind to roost in New York City. At any given moment, according to the ticker at the bottom of the Hawk Cam, about 1,500 people around the world (recently the chat room included a viewer in China) are watching. Even during the weeks while the eggs were incubating and almost nothing was happening in the nest, there was still something oddly riveting about the birds. The camera’s view was so close, and the hawk’s perch was so still, that you could see the gentle up-and-down motion of its body as it breathed. The eggs underneath could be glimpsed only when the hawks switched places, which happened several times a day: Either Violet or Bobby would suddenly appear and take over the sitting duties for a spell, while the other stretched his or her wings.

In the first few weeks after the hatchling emerged, the nest was a hubbub of activity, with Bobby and Violet constantly flying in and out with treats for the newborn: mainly rodents and small birds. At first Pip, as the eyas was named by its fans, was fed by one or the other parent. Within a week or so, it (the bird’s sex won’t be apparent until it’s nearly grown) was big enough to feed itself, sticking its neck out for a snack even if the parents weren’t in sight. These days there’s not much to see again, as the restless eyas spends much of its time wandering around on the ledge, beyond the camera’s view. More and more often when I pull up the screen, the nest is empty.

Part of the pleasure of watching the Hawk Cam comes from the thrill of omnipresence that the Internet uniquely offers. Almost no one will otherwise see a hawk’s nest this close, just as most people will likely never see in person so many of the other wonders visible daily on the Web: the tip of Mount Everest poking out through clouds, or the view from the top of the Burj Dubai skyscraper. For a random world tour, the website Opentopia gives a sampling of public webcams around the globe, from the traffic in Malmö, Sweden, to a restaurant interior in Bulgaria. As with the Hawk Cam, it’s not about the action—there’s almost none. The excitement lies in the act of seeing rather than what is being seen: the voyeuristic frisson of watching real life, unedited.

But the Hawk Cam isn’t peeking into some random person’s kitchen: We’re getting an up-close view of Violet and Bobby’s boudoir. It’s virtually impossible not to anthropomorphize these creatures whom we watch engaging in daily activities so much like our own: child care, food gathering, or just sitting around. (Who can watch March of the Penguins without being moved by the birds’ apparent devotion to each other and to their young?) After the Times published a groan-inducing excerpt from a new anthology about another supposedly rare species—men who cook meals for their families!—it was somehow refreshing to turn back to the hawks, who were demonstrating a different model of cooperative parenting. When Bobby and Violet switched places on the incubating eggs, they did so without appearing to greet each other or make a big fuss or communicate about it in any way. They simply did what needed to be done.

In her recent book The Private Lives of Birds, the biologist Bridget Stutchbury demonstrates that many bird courtship rituals resemble our own: Male superb fairy-wrens greet prospective mates with flowers in their beaks, while prairie chickens, like nightclub-goers, show off with an elaborate dance. But birds, unlike irrational humans, have solid evolutionary reasons for the way that they choose their mates. Stutchbury is astonished to discover that a female scarlet tanager will abandon a nest full of healthy eggs just because her mate fails to bring her a food delivery on time. But she realizes that the bird has devised a sophisticated test: After the chicks hatch, the female will be dependent on her mate for food for a few weeks, and if her partner cannot provide, she and her chicks will starve. “A female is not simply a passive recipient of a free handout,” Stutchbury concludes, “but coerces her mate into bringing a steady supply of food as a test of his parenting skills.” Bythis logic, a woman who coaxes her boyfriend into giving her expensive presents isn’t simply a gold-digger—she’s spurred by a quite sensible evolutionary impulse to make him prove his merit as a provider.

A click away from the Hawk Cam, human courtship rituals are on full display in the June wedding pages. Which of us, reading these anecdotes of first dates and second chances, does not wonder how many of the unions will last? Compared with the sheer practicality of a bird, our motives for choosing our own mates—a look, a smile, a smell—can seem arbitrary and ill-reasoned. Watching the Central Park hawks set up house, Winn writes in Red-Tails in Love, led some of the birdwatchers to reflect on their own behavior: “Might far more of it be triggered by instinctive messages we cannot understand or control?” As humans, we foul our own nests with drama and complications. In contemplating our qualities as Homo sapiens, we tend to emphasize our superiority to the animal kingdom—our language, our emotions, our opposable thumbs. Rarely do we stop to wonder what might have been lost along the evolutionary road.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.