I would hate having a camera pointed at me around the clock, no more so than when I was pregnant. There were some decidedly sweaty, puffy and crabby moments that no one needed to witness save for my unfortunate husband. But lately, I’ve been transfixed by one mama-to-be who is blissfully oblivious to my spying eyes. Along with thousands of other online peeping Toms, I’m addicted to watching live streaming video — broadcast 24/7 — from an eagle camera in northwestern Pennsylvania.
Mounted high beside the nest in a scraggly tree, the camera captures the comings and goings (but mostly sitting) of a pair of bald eagles. Mom is larger and more powerful than her much younger mate (you go, girl!). The two take turns protecting and warming the pair of eggs she laid back in February, which are scheduled to hatch as I type. That momentous occurrence will no doubt herald season two of this hit reality show, and I suspect even more viewers will tune in once the eaglets arrive. [Editor’s note: They’re here!]“Prepare to lose yourself in one of the most positive ‘trips’ available this side of hallucinogenic drugs, losing yourself while expanding — however briefly — into another’s life.”
In addition to the eagle cam, which streams on my desktop most of the day, I am barraged with animal images via social media. If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, mini movies of animals being cute (like an otter shooting hoops or a Labrador playing with an elephant) pop up several times a day. Some of this footage has been shared by FB friends; some vignettes are “suggested” as posts I’d like to see. I do like to see them and of course, the more I watch, the more that come my way.
Judging by the volume of this online animal entertainment, it’s clear I’m not the only one who feels this way.
What’s behind this fascination with watching animals? Part of the explanation is that people, at least some of the time, look at animals as reflections of themselves. So says David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington. As Barash explains in an article published in the online magazine Aeon, “humans are living, breathing, perspiring, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, eating, defecating, urinating, copulating, child-rearing, and ultimately dying animals ourselves… deep in the human psyche there resides the simple yet profound recognition of a relationship between Us and Them.”
Besides that, watching animals can be a feel-good activity. Sometimes their antics make us laugh but just as often, watching can be soothing, even meditative. There is absolutely no artifice: A squirrel is who he is. Therefore, we can trust our perceptions of what we’re seeing in a way we often can’t with our fellow humans. With animals, there’s no intentional drama or whining. When we watch them from afar, they make no demands on us even as we take pleasure from them. Who wouldn’t welcome a few minutes of this kind of peace into their day? There’s something about losing myself in their world that helps me find myself in mine.
Clicking on the eagle cam, I often feel simultaneously stimulated and calmed. The birds’ singularity of purpose grounds me. I admire their focus. I envy the eagle’s ability to be its most natural self at all times. And I’m always moved by their beauty. Here’s how David Barash describes the state of mind one might access through watching animals: “Prepare to lose yourself in one of the most positive ‘trips’ available this side of hallucinogenic drugs, losing yourself while expanding — however briefly — into another’s life, resonant of your own, while also ineffably different.”
As for my interest in the nesting and hatching process, there’s the whole miracle of life aspect, which can’t be overstated. The fact that we, and all animals, create life where there was none is nothing short of amazing, as is the fact that nature designs such perfect vessels as eggs and wombs to nourish and protect the unborn. If you’ve been lucky enough to give birth or witness the emergence of a human or an animal, then you’ve probably experienced that sense of just how extraordinary the process — and the world — can be.
When I asked my fellow eagle cam viewers to describe their connection to the expectant eagle family, Linda M. wrote: “It’s about sheer determination, the purest of nature’s instincts, loyalty, parenting, and the beauty of it all.” Christina S. told me, “The eagle is a predatory bird that signifies freedom, tenacity, strength – this camera gives us a glimpse of nurturing within that strength.” Deb H. is moved by the fact that eagle couples mate for life: “I only wish people could be so determined in their relationships,” she says.
It may sound silly, but I project many of the emotions I experienced throughout my own pregnancies and deliveries onto the birds, who probably feel little or none of the impatience, crankiness, anxiety and joy that I did. But we certainly share some innate parenting impulses, like protectiveness and nurturance.
This winter was brutally cold and monumentally snowy in Pennsylvania. There were days when the eagle’s head was the only part of its body not covered in snow as she (or he) sat stoically in that frigid perch, keeping those eggs warm. On this camera and others, I’ve watched eagles fight off raccoons and hawks and owls to protect their nests. Those images make me remember the day I was pushing my son in his stroller across West End Avenue when a car came careening around the corner, racing to make the light. Instinctively, I threw my body over the stroller and the car stopped with its bumper pressing into my back.
That’s what mothers do, whether they have feathers or fur or skin.
I must sign off now. There’s movement in the nest!