Birds & Birding

The Cooler: 5 Lessons for Live Animal Cams

August 2, 2013

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Aubrie...or is it Ossie?

(Editor’s Note: Osprey Cam is back! Check out the 2014 nest cam at its new location).

Live animal cams — everybody loves ’em. (For instance: Almost 2.5 million people have visited this live cam in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, hoping to catch a glimpse of a brown bear catching a salmon.)

And as Nature Conservancy scientist Jeff DeQuattro wrote about on Cool Green Science yesterday, the osprey live nest cam from Orange Beach, Alabama that this blog and other Conservancy web pages featured this spring and summer was certainly no exception. We’ve had nearly 40,000 visits to the Cool Green Science page with the live feed since it went up on June 3.

So is it that simple? Just install a camera of penguins or pandas in a zoo and presto! Hundreds of bored workers watching your webcam?

Maybe…if that’s all you want. But the Orange Beach osprey cam inspired high passion and engagement among our viewers — who have left well over 300 comments on the post to date, many in conversation with each other and with us at Cool Green Science. There was a clear conservation ethic afoot, not just voyeurism.

So now that the two chicks have largely moved on from the nest and the cam feed is being shut down, I’m asking myself: What made this feature so engaging? And what makes it an interesting model to think about for conservation science communications? Here are five thoughts:

1) Science matters. Visitors were initially simply charmed by the sight of fuzzy osprey chicks — and their parents eviscerating whole fish seemingly every hour and feeding them to the ravenous kids.

But then the questions came fast and furious: How long will the chicks stay in the nest? Why is one parent always hanging around and not the other? Why does one chick always get fed first? What will happen to the third, unhatched egg? Where are the fledglings going when they leave the nest?

Scientific information and interpretation was critical in turning the camera from a flat carnival show into one equal parts education and reality.

Jeff’s initial post did a great job in introducing what to expect and how ospreys fit into the larger ecology of the Gulf of Mexico. He also periodically responded to questions in the comments and provided some updates as the chicks started to test their wings and then fledge the nest. Those updates provided essential context and framing for what we were watching and why it mattered ecologically. Visitors responded appreciatively to the information — and came to expect it.

2) Story matters. Unlike other live animal cams, which don’t name their subjects or insist on referring to them by the soulless, bingo-call designation assigned to them for scientific study purposes (e.g., D-26), Jeff gave the two parents cute names (Allie and Bama) as well as the chicks (Ossie and Aubrie).

Growing up is inherently a story, anyway, and the names allowed viewers to more easily identify with the chicks (even if we couldn’t tell the two apart for a while) and then to start making up their own narratives about the family, even anthropomorphizing the bids.

Which is just fine, especially when it leads people to make erroneous assumptions about what’s going on in the nest — as science communicators, we can use these moments to make gentle teaching interventions.

Commenters were also projecting a lot of fanciful narratives onto the family. Science normally gets uptight about that kind of imaginative anthropomorphic freelancing; I think it’s a sign of great engagement. We need to give people the information they need to understand what they are seeing, and then relax and let them absorb it in their own ways and take it in their own directions.

3) Community matters. An ad hoc community quickly grew up around the osprey cam feature through the blog comments — responding to each other’s questions, reporting on the bird’s behaviors, sharing their joy and fears.

The community quickly developed its own standards of discourse, as well — for instance, ostracizing one commentor who speculated one of the chicks was a member of a certain political party because it seemed reluctant to leave the nest and fish for itself. The dynamic was participatory, even through the essential activity was spectating. The ability for visitors around the world to connect with each other and keep each other informed nearly 24 hours a day about the nest goings-on was inspiring, to say the least.

4) Responsiveness matters. As noted above, Jeff DeQuattro provided us with periodic scientific updates. As moderators, we also tried to answer questions from viewers quickly in the comments and let people know what was going on when the camera feed unexpectedly went down for a day.

In addition, we provided links to online resources about ospreys and their habits. Maintaining community and engagement is so much easier when that community knows it has a responsive point of contact within the organization. Again, visitors were appreciative.

5) Species matter.  Well, of course — it’s a animal cam, isn’t it?

But at a time when conservation is shifting hard towards talking about systems, function and services, species can still provide a critical emotional bond for many people that provides a gateway to engagement with our work.

But that doesn’t mean species in the abstract — it’s means particular species (ospreys have fans worldwide); close enough to almost touch; framed by science; ecologically important; amenable to both scientific and citizen narrative-making; and around which a community can coalesce.

That’s a recipe that allows conservation to become part of tens of thousands of people’s daily lives. So while live animal cams are expensive to set up and maintain, their impact for our work and support can be close to priceless.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

Bob Lalasz

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues. More from Bob

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