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Monday Reads: The Hawk Cam Edition

Polar bears may be the poster child for climate change, but our warming world is affecting flora and fauna up the food chain and down. Birds of prey are no exception. As temperatures change, some areas get drier, others get wetter—and the landscape that the birds have relied on and adapted to becomes increasingly foreign.

For many of us, the active lives of birds can be glimpsed only fleetingly (if at all) through carefully trained binoculars. Thankfully, the Internet—as it has with so many other mysteries of life—has stepped in to help us out.

Cue Violet and Bobby. Eschewing a Park Avenue brownstone or the classic New York City doorman building, this red-tailed hawk couple chose real estate with higher education in mind, making their nest right at New York University President John Sexton's 12th floor office window. Dr. Sexton graciously allowed the New York Times to setup a 24-hour live webcam, trained directly and discreetly on the nest, making for the best kind of reality TV.

Reality stars Bobby, left, and Violet at home. (Christopher James / NYU)

Thousands tuned in daily to watch the budding family: the parents carefully tending to their three eggs, Bobby swooping in with choice bits of the best rodents NYC has to offer, and Violet apparently working on the Times' crossword puzzle. (The scrap of newspaper nest material turned out not to be strategic product placement on the part of the Times; hawk-eyed cam-watchers discerned the page was actually from the free daily amNewYork. Kudos to Bobby for being budget-conscious.) The drama of the live feed was unparalleled: on April 5, the nest and its precious cargo was left unattended for 10 nail-biting minutes. Was this the end? Did Violet know something we didn't? The Internet's collective rising anxiety was quenched nearly as abruptly as it mounted; Violet returned, settling back onto her eggs as if nothing had happened.

An avid fan.
(Dave Hoffsommer)

The comments on the webcam thread soon ballooned to the high triple digits—nest watchers left a running commentary of the most exciting going-ons of the nest's activities so that their fellow viewers who broke off for bathroom breaks or got caught watching the cam by their boss could still get a play-by-play of what they missed. Household cats even got in on the webcam watching action. (One man's "Hawk Cam," is another cat's "Feline Food Channel".) Tourists and city dwellers left their computers and filed into Washington Square Park, craning their necks skyward for a glimpse of the hawks, 120 feet up. (One visitor saw "sticks and leaves and some lovely people.")

But after weeks of breathless waiting, hawk experts, scientists and that bastion of journalism, the New York Times, proclaimed the nest a dud. The time window for incubation had passed. Snide recriminations of Violet and Bobby's parenting techniques were barely uttered (the words "inept lovers" were heard) before baby Pip burst forth. (Metaphorically speaking; his hatching, from first eggshell crack to full emergence, took hours.)

And the Internet rejoiced.

Can you find Pip?
(Courtesy of Erin Callihan / NYU Local)

Pip will be an only child (the other two eggs remained stubbornly unhatched), but the drama of this now family of three continues. A metal wildlife band on Violet's leg, in conjunction likely with a foot injury, was causing her foot to swell and she was in danger of losing it. Would there be a rescue effort to capture Violet and remove the band? If the efforts went afoul and Pip had to be taken into human care, he could never be released to the wild. After extensive consultations from state agencies and wildlife rehabilitators, the decision was made to let Violet continue to care for Pip.

These days, Pip has grown on our screen from a fuzzy dime-sized babe who snuggly fit under his mother's breast, to a tumbling giant toddler, flexing his growing nubbins of wings and taking terrifying (for us) steps out of the nest and onto the narrow, slanted window ledge. In another several weeks, he will start learning how to fly. And Violet and Bobby, like so many parents before them, will be left with an empty nest.

What a difference a few days make.
(Courtesy of NYT Hawk Cam)

Pip has fulfilled our great expectations to survive and flourish—and along the way, given his human voyeurs a new connection to the inaccessible, wild world around us. Those who might not have given birds a second thought in the past, may now look upon them with a newfound appreciation—and desire to help protect them.

Not all the characters in our warming world are lucky enough to have their own personal webcam to tell their stories, but they all possess compelling and critical roles in the web of life, from the majestic giant sequoias, down to the unassuming Delta smelt.

Watch the live Hawk Cam below—or even better, join the bustling chat room at http://livestream.com/nytnestcam with all the other Hawk Cam watchers.

    Update: June 23, 2011    
Just a few days into the official start of summer, Hawk Cam watchers finally witnessed what they long knew was coming and nearly all had been dreading. At 11:55am ET, Pip took flight. Unlike some human twenty- or thirty-somethings, there will be no boomeranging back to the nest for this young adult. This is the end of the Hawk Cam (at least for this year) and the thrilling, months-long adventure that we all shared with Violet, Bobby, and Pip. What will the future hold for this family? Violet and Bobby, pair bonded, may return to this same nest next year—and hawk experts expect these now well-seasoned and hardy parents will be able to successfully raise a full clutch of chicks. For Pip, the coming days, weeks and months will be grim. John Blakeman, the hawk expert who has regularly visited the Hawk Cam chatroom to answer questions, says that fewer than 20% of young hawks will make it through their first year, with many of them simply unable to catch enough food to survive. Good luck, Pip!! For a look back at how the story of these three red-tailed hawks unfolded, visit the New York Times's Pip The Hawk: This is Your Life timeline.

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unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.