Starting one spring almost 20 years ago, Founder and CEO Jim Carpenter began filming an owl nest box he had placed in his wooded backyard in central Indiana. In 2012, realizing he could reach a wider audience and tap the knowledge of subject matter experts, Carpenter partnered with Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology for an annual broadcast of the Barred Owls’ yearly visit to his backyard nest box. When the project first launched, Cornell project managers worked with Carpenter to upgrade his backyard camera system and provide background integration so that Wild Birds Unlimited’s Owl Cam now live streams each spring, from about the first week in March, when the female owl typically lays her eggs, to about mid-May, when the new owlets typically leave the nest.
Bird Cams Project leader Charles Eldermire and his colleague Benjamin Walters currently handle the technical integration and outreach related to the Wild Birds Unlimited Barred Owl Cam. The pair shared that, so far, the nest box has already seen exciting visits from feathered friends.
“The owls arrived a bit early this year and laid their first egg on March 1,” said Walters. “That’s the earliest we’ve seen an egg in our partnership’s six-year history. The second and last egg was laid on March 4. This will be the second time they’ve laid two eggs; otherwise, there have always been three.”
Eldermire and Walters shared that, while they can’t be positive it’s the same two owls that have come back to the nest box every year, the species’ commitment to territory and high fidelity to nesting sites suggest that it is. This particular pair has a good track record, according to Walters.
“Every egg has hatched [in the last six years] and all the owlets have fledged from the nest box,” Walters said. “So that’s a positive sign that we will hopefully see owlets around the first week of April, when the eggs should hatch. Then, in another 32 to 35 days, the owlets will start leaving the box.”
For the uninitiated, a live stream of a nest might seem relaxed, but both Walters and Eldermire emphasized that it’s anything but. To help viewers better understand what they’re seeing and provide a complementary education source, the Cornell team provides a Wild Birds Unlimited Barred Owl Cam account on Twitter where viewers can browse through the day’s highlights and ask questions.
“Twitter serves both as a source of community connection and as a place to share insights and exciting moments,” Walters said. “Users can sound off or retweet a screen cap, plus it’s a great way for us to provide a comprehensive list of just what goes on at the nest box each day. That way, if you miss a few hours, you can just scroll through the Twitter feed.”
Eldermire explained that the unfurling story of a star species makes for great streaming content.
“Almost everyone loves owls,” said Eldermire. “Owls are one of those really charismatic species, and they’re mysterious because they are easy to hear but difficult to see. Also, you usually only hear them at night, which only heightens that mystery. So it’s a real treasure to see owls hunkered down and resting during the day.”
But the 24-hour cameras also capture the birds’ active nightlife.
“Really fun things to watch for at this time of the nesting period are the prey deliveries that happen at night,” Eldermire said. “The male owl either flies up to box and drops off whole prey, or else pieces, to the female for meals. Dinner could be anything from earthworms and crawfish to songbirds, even rabbits. Owls are very opportunistic.”
With more than 300 locations across the U.S. and Canada, Wild Birds Unlimited is the original and the largest franchise system of backyard bird feeding and nature specialty stores, meaning a built-in audience and exceptional birding product line. That knowledge and offering comprise that which “viewers of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s projects likely need, so there’s a natural cross-pollination there,” Eldermire said of the partnership.
Ultimately, outreach, education and entertainment alight on screens worldwide every spring thanks to Wild Birds Unlimited and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But the owl cam only runs until mid- to late-May, so flock to your nearest computer and join in the experience while you can.
For additional educational resources, please see below.
To watch the owls on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, click here.
To watch a highlight reel from the 2018 season, click here.
To watch a compilation video of highlights from the past few years, click here.
For general information about Barred Owls and to listen to them communicate, click here.