Plain talk on witnessing nature

courtesy of Audubon and

Photo courtesy of Audubon and

I no longer take the trouble to answer, when a viewer comments, “Oh the poor little thing! Is he getting enough to eat? The other ones must pick on him!” The third chick at the Hog Island Osprey Nest hatched 2.5 days after the second one and is, therefore, slightly smaller. But he (or she, we have no way to tell gender yet) marches right up to the front in the food line and the mother osprey makes sure the – very plentiful – supply of fish is divided equally.

I don’t mind new viewers asking questions, and I answer them gladly. When I first started watching this live cam, 3-4 years ago, I knew very little about ospreys. Between observing, asking questions, and reading, my knowledge increased. And my wonderment as well. They still do things that surprise me and fill me with curiosity.

There are more and more live cams throughout the world, giving us a very close and personal view of wildlife. I applaud this development. Witnessing nature teaches us that we are not alone in the world. And, hopefully, it means we all start caring more about nature.

However, not everyone watching live cams seems to be open to the learning process that organisations like offer. And there is a disturbing tendency to define all animal and bird behaviour in human terms. Viewers project their own experiences and emotions onto what they see. This even makes for unpleasant misunderstandings between humans. When a human starts doing this with wildlife, nothing is learned. People are simply watching projections of their own story.

Sometimes, tragedy strikes a nest. Last year, bald eagles took both chicks from the Hog Island nest. Some viewers still dislike eagles because of the event. Others can’t free themselves of the fear that it will happen again and panic each time the osprey parents leave the nest unattended for a minute.

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, for some reason we may never fathom, a mother osprey kept attacking her young. Upset viewers demanded intervention, even saying the mother osprey should be killed. They started writing letters and making threatening phone calls to the head of the Institute. The WHOI finally took the live cam offline.

Live wildlife cams are not Hollywood movies. There is no guarantee that the story will have a happy ending. However, we can learn a lot, even when things do not end happily. And our knowledge may help us to understand the world around us better.

Ornithologists and other scientists value the information gathered by citizen scientists at bird cams. This information can only be of real value if we try to watch with an open mind, questioning what we see with true curiosity, trying to understand it. Not on our terms but in its own right.

Projecting our own stories on everything we see and experience is one of the things that causes hatred and intolerance in the world. An open questioning mind is one of the roads to peace.


  1. Shirley Theiss aka Sambuzzard

    As always very well spoken. Always enjoy your input.

  2. Excellent as usual Maddi dear!

  3. We watch the wild birds & get attached. We forget this is nature & nature is often ugly to watch. It is survival of the fittest. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to watch & learn.

    • Yes, we are so very fortunate! I like what Rob Bierregard has to say about this, “Nature isn’t cruel. The word ‘cruel’ implies intent to harm. Nature can be harsh and random at times, but never cruel.”

      • I had originally written cruel and remembered Rob Bierregaard’s words and changed it to ugly. Harsh may be more accurate.

  4. Tyra Trevellyn

    Maddi, this is perfect, as well as needed. Thanks for your aleays wise words.

  5. Jeanne Kaufman

    Hi Maddi,
    As always, a very insightful piece. Just catching up with mail and such after my return from Hog Island. We saw many examples of the struggles that occur in nature, and it would be easy to allow ourselves to project our human emotions on the scene, but it is more important for us just to be observers. One such example happened while we were on the Ross Island excursion, where there were many nesting Herring Gulls. We witnessed a gull attacking a group of Common Eiders with their chicks. He grabbed one chick, and swallowed it down in one gulp. It was a harsh reality of the life and death struggle that goes on daily. No one turned away from the scene, though it touched us all. In the end, the gull also has chicks to feed. To witness, in person or on a cam, these slices of reality, is a priceless learning experience, and one that I appreciate every day.

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