The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Watching owls on a bird cam is pure joy
Live streams of our feathered friends from all over the world have become surprise viral hits. Tune in and relax, says Tomé Morrissy-Swan
In September 2019 a video went viral and, as with many such clips, it involved animals – a baby barn owl, to be precise. Hearing thunder for the first time, the 10-week-old owl cowers inside a nest, in an adorable manner reminiscent of Puss in Boots’ wide-eyed glare in Shrek 2.
The video has since been seen over 20 million times, including by Nikki Silcock, who first came across it last year. Ever since, she has tuned in daily to the wildlife artist Robert E Fuller’s live bird cams, the same source behind the baby owl.
Over the past year, nature has offered solace in turbulent times. Yet visiting parks or reserves has been trickier than usual, particularly for those in cities, such as Silcock, 34, who lives in Liverpool. From the comfort of their own homes, they can now tune into osprey nests in Scotland, keep au fait with the protracted yet unexpectedly exhilarating lives of owls in Yorkshire, or even watch birds further afield – bald eagles in North America, perhaps, or colourful birds in the tropics.
Live bird cams have boomed in lockdown. Fuller, a wildlife artist who runs a gallery in the Yorkshire Wolds, has hundreds of nest boxes in the surrounding area, and has long docu
mented the lives of birds. In February 2020, his YouTube account had 36,800 subscribers; a year on, that number has jumped to 188,000. Up to 60,000 people a day tune in to watch the birds, hoping to catch something exciting such as an egg hatching, or, more often than not, simply observe the birds sleeping, which is surprisingly meditative.
Fuller’s nest boxes, many of which he builds himself, are often made from old bits of tree, and can weigh up to 40st. Many have cameras inside, through which to observe possible tenants. Alongside barn, tawny and little owls, there’s the chance of spotting peregrine falcons, kestrels, buzzards and more, including mammals – Fuller has cameras in fox dens, badger setts and stoat and weasel nests.
Live streaming is something the RSPB has also tapped into. Luke Phillips, direct marketing manager for reserves and events, explains that bird cams have been used since the 1960s. Initially, they were installed for security, after ospreys, reintroduced to Scotland, were persecuted by egg collectors. “More recently, they’ve become a way of showing people wildlife in a different and more personal way,” says Phillips.
In Dorset’s Arne RSPB reserve, cameras constantly monitor the wetlands, while nest boxes have highlighted the nocturnal lives of barn owls. This year, a bird feeder camera notched 150,000 views in one month, and during January’s Big Garden Birdwatch, an annual citizen science project run by the organisation, 100,000 people tuned into live bird cams over one weekend.
“We managed to feature 32 different species of birds. It was really exciting,” says Phillips. Rare birds such as crested tits and tree sparrows were spotted, both of which are rapidly declining. “It was nice to be able to bring those to people live, and explain their stories as well.”
The streams, whether of birds or any other creature, are a valuable resource for scientific study. Animals behave differently when humans are present, so a camera can help observe them in their natural state. Several universities have used Fuller’s cameras, and he is one of the only people in the world to have filmed inside a kingfisher’s nest. “I’ve probably got the best footage inside a nesting chamber that’s been done yet,” he says.
But the main reason bird cams have captured the public’s imagination over the past year is because they satiate our appetite for nature. “People absolutely love it. We have nearly 500 watching at the moment, in the middle of the day,” says Fuller. “Some are obsessed. They send diaries, which help our team on the cameras.
“There has always been an interest in nature, but people have connected with it a lot more. It’s calming, and there’s a lot of stress at the moment. In a global crisis, just watching wildlife, following a storyline, it’s really touching.” Recently, a pair of tawny owls incubated their eggs, and some viewers joined a hatching sweepstake, with the money donated to Fuller’s gallery; unfortunately, nature had other plans, and the eggs failed to hatch.
“People haven’t been able to get to our reserves, so we’ve made efforts to bring nature to people’s homes,” says Phillips. “It has been really well received and massively appreciated.” He points to an ongoing study by scientists at the University of Exeter, which is exploring whether watching nature virtually can be as beneficial as the real thing. “In lockdown, people were getting into nature on a broad front, whether out in their gardens planting, taking notice of bugs, digging ponds. It boosts morale, relieves stress, anxiety and depression, and people have discovered they can access a whole range of webcams on YouTube from across the world.”
While calming, Silcock admits the harsh reality of nature can turn the streams into something of a soap opera. One plotline involved an owl chick who, at eight weeks old, helped her mother brood a new set of eggs. “It was something we’d never seen before,” says Fuller. However, when the chicks hatched, the mother banished the older daughter, who returned three days later and, after tussle, grabbed one of the new chicks, flew off, and ate it. “It was quite traumatic,” says Silcock. Nevertheless, watching birds, albeit virtually, has provided comfort to Silcock over the past year. Like Fuller, she uses the footage to produce art. “It’s a bit of an escape, a distraction, and it’s something positive,” she says.