I keep a nest cam feed going in the background while I work or read online. The feeds provide some nice background noise, and if anything gets loud, I take a tiny break to see what’s going on. These cams made me feel connected to the outdoors when I was a grad student working for hours at my desk in a windowless office. Once, during a meeting with a student, I was interrupted by a loud squawking and trill sounds emanating from my computer speakers. I had accidentally left a live feed of a peregrine falcon nest open in the background. I acted confused and hit the mute key to continue on about topic sentences.
One such publicly available feed is a Université de Montréal-run nest cam. A pair of peregrine falcons have been nesting on the twenty-third floor of the main building on the campus for several years. Researchers at the university installed a nesting box made of plywood and AstroTurf, apparently creating ideal conditions for hatching and fledging chicks. Viewers can observe the birds taking turns sitting on their eggs, feeding prey to their young, and other happenings around the nest. Sometimes the view is just a bird sitting at an angle away from the camera, feathers lightly ruffling in the wind, sides rising and falling with deep, slow breathing.
During that meeting I had the immediate inclination to mute the nest cam and hide what I had been doing. In that moment I couldn’t figure out a way to explain what was going on that didn’t sound too dorky or weird. I was embarrassed about getting caught, and if I explained what I was doing, I thought I might sound like a creep. What kind of person spies on birds for entertainment? Watching the birds often made me feel like a voyeur, even though the nest cams are supposed to be set up as a tool for science and conservation.
That might be because watching animals through these cameras isn’t really about observation, it’s about surveillance. Rosemary Collard, a critical geographer who writes about human-animal entanglements, says that surveillance mechanisms used in scientific research subject animal life to human control. Surveillance uses sophisticated technologies that seemingly allow us to gain access to nature in a way that will provide the truth. Instead, surveillance provides information that is isolated, out of a larger context, and in the service of power. The use of surveillance in scientific research on animals also normalizes these technologies as necessary tools for studying and understanding the world. Even the language we use to talk about animals on film or video—saying animals are “caught” or “captured” by observation devices—suggests that there is something going on besides careful observation.
…surveillance provides information that is isolated, out of a larger context, and in the service of power.
In the time that I have spent looking for a nest cam to have on in the background, I have found links to thousands of wildlife cameras set up by conservation and science organizations, as well as by other online entertainment entities. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a leading research facility in the US, has links to twenty-three feeds on their website, encouraging people to watch species from all over North and South America. Subjects range from green and white hummingbirds in Peru, to condors in California, to a bird feeder in an Ontario backyard. With a simple search, you can find feeds for all kinds of different animals: sharks, bears, albatrosses, bison, jellyfish, otters, even puppies. All over the world and at all times, we watch animals.
In 2015, an osprey live feed made headlines. The camera was set up by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Maine to watch a breeding pair at the nest with their chicks. The feed was set up with a live chat where people connected about their love for the ospreys, as well as created a hatching pool for guessing the date of emergence for each chick. At some point after hatching, the female osprey started attacking one of the chicks. As the attacks continued, the chat blew up with people asking the host organization to intervene. The Institute’s strict no intervention policy meant that whatever the conditions at the nest, nature should be allowed to take its course. The purpose of the cam was to monitor the birds, but not meddle with them. This made some viewers even more irate. Comments about the female osprey were full of rage, disdain, and a kind of misogyny directed to the bird as a “mother.”
People watch nature and expect that it will reflect back the cultural norms that structure their thinking. This learning derives from the assumption that education and entertainment related to animals ought to be structured around anthropomorphized narratives
One nest cam spectator was adamant: “It is absolutely disgusting that you will not take those chicks away from that demented witch of a parent!!!!!”
People watch nature and expect that it will reflect back the cultural norms that structure their thinking. This learning derives from the assumption that education and entertainment related to animals ought to be structured around anthropomorphized narratives in order to make them relatable. Combining this anthropomorphism with surveillance isn’t about education or making a connection with these species in order to understand the realities of their behaviours and life cycles. Instead, these approaches are about how people interpret nature.
When animal behaviour is anthropomorphized, it informs the ways humans will exert power over their lives. These interpretations justify forms of intervention under the guise of care or stewardship. One organization with a nest cam reported that their non-intervention policy frustrated spectators so much that they took matters into their own hands: viewers located the nest and attempted a rescue of the chick in question. The clandestine raptor rescue squad were concerned for the young osprey, but none of them studied the overall role of the bird in its ecosystem, or thought about what was actually normal for this species. Just like with the ospreys in Maine, they wanted to see a female bird perform the role of a good mother, to see a loving family being raised in the nest. When that didn’t happen in the way they believed was correct, they acted on their interpretation of what needed to be corrected.
The feeds themselves contribute to a narrow understanding of their subjects that reasserts human exceptionalism. A camera pointed at a nest isolates the animal from its ecology. We are watching a scene or a setting, and in the case of a nest, one that is easily anthropomorphized. A nest cam reduces the life of an osprey to being a mom or a dad, raising their kids and teaching them about life before they go out on their own. Humans have even adapted this process into a title for parents whose kids have moved out: “empty nesters”. The reality is that a nest is not a home. A nest is constructed to create an ideal environment for incubating eggs and keeping young corralled until they can fly. Once the fledglings are out, the adults leave as well. They aren’t turning a part of the nest into a library or workshop. A 24-hour surveillance camera cannot provide embedded, interconnected knowledge. The idea that surveillance is necessary to know or understand nature rests heavily on the colonial notion that humans are separate from and superior to the ecosystems we inhabit.
Before I had a good enough internet connection to watch nest cams, the only time I saw birds was when I went out bird watching, or birding. Birding became easier and more enjoyable for me as I learned about where I lived, hiked, and visited. As a part of this practice I learned to bird by ear: identifying species by the calls and songs they make. This also helped me to know where to look for birds based on their sounds: a chickadee would be in the trees, an ovenbird would be on the ground. I developed a landscape literacy that helped me understand the place I lived, my relationship to it and the other beings that were a part of the ecology. I could not have done that with a wildlife camera, I had to do it through developing a relationship to the land, and to the complexities of the many lives that are connected to it.
The idea that surveillance is necessary to know or understand nature rests heavily on the colonial notion that humans are separate from and superior to the ecosystems we inhabit.
Potawatomi ecologist and scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about this embedded knowledge in her writing. She suggests that surveillance makes us unaware of the multifaceted and nuanced information that is available to us through careful observation. The normalizing of surveillance and extracting data from it makes us dismissive of what time and patience help us to perceive. Kimmerer’s writing tell us that attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.
I would suggest that it provides more information than any surveillance camera. In order to learn with attentiveness, as Kimmerer writes, in order to observe this way, we have to account for an ecology that humans are also a part of. It is settler science that distances humans from the ecosystems we inhabit. I might still watch a nest cam here and there for entertainment, but the work of knowing about animals, conservation work, and supporting work for climate justice is about embedding ourselves, learning to listen, being humble, and being open to the myriad lessons that nature has to offer.