Celebrating Independence Day With the Decorah Eagles

It's Independence Day and our thoughts turn to picnics, parades, and fireworks. This year, Americans may also be thinking about our national bird thanks, in large part, to the Decorah eagles.

For those of you who have been living without a computer or under a rock for the last six months, the Decorah eagles live in an enormous nest in a cottonwood tree in Decorah, Iowa. The day-to-day activities of the parents and three eaglets were captured live through the efforts of the Raptor Resource Project (RRP) and Ustream. Currently, there have been over 181 million views. This makes the eagles, according to Ustream, the most watched live stream from a single source -- ever.

Educators, sociologists and scientists will spend a great deal of time analyzing -- and most certainly trying to duplicate -- this unprecedented success. However, die-hard Eagle-aholics (or Beak Geeks, as I prefer to be called) have already figured out what made this experience so special for millions of people.

First, Americans have a deep understanding of what the eagle, as a symbol, has meant to us. Since its designation in 1782, it has represented strength and freedom. When eagles were on the verge of disappearing, Americans from all walks of life fought to ban DDT, improve water quality, and preserve their habitat. To see healthy, thriving eaglets nurtured by their loving parents reminds us of what we as a nation are capable of when we decide to fix a problem.

Second, everyone loves innovation. What do you get when you combine Ustream with the experts at the RRP? You get groundbreaking advances in wildlife videography. You also get a breathtaking and intimate view of the daily trials and tribulations of a struggling family. Who needs the made-up drama of The Real Housewives... when you have the real drama of the Decorah eagles? When it comes right down to it, all of the unforgettable images were possible because really smart people had the insight to wonder, "What would happen if we ...?"

Finally, because people naturally want to share an experience with other people, the moderated chat to the right of the video stream was at the heart of the site's popularity. Instead of sitting alone at a computer trying to guess what the eagles were doing, you could ask. Open 12 hours a day, 7 days per week, the chat allowed us to communicate with 1500 viewers and moderators. A new community of eagle lovers was created every day.

In total, 24 moderators volunteered their time to help the rest of us understand what we were watching. Known only by their screen names, the moderators spent countless hours creating a family-friendly atmosphere while educating the world on the lives of eagles. They had unending patience with the recurring questions (e.g. "How do you tell the difference between Mom and Dad?") and good-hearted fun with the silly questions (e.g. "Do eagles cross state lines?"). Through it all, the moderators were the quiet voice of reason, reassuring worried viewers from the moment the eggs were laid to the moment the young eagles left the nest.

Even though the chat is suspended until the new nesting season begins in late fall, you can still watch the eagles. The camera will continue to run as long as the eagles are still in view. There is even more to look forward to because the RRP hopes to place a satellite transmitter on one of the sub-adult eagles. It doesn't bother or harm the bird and, according to the RRP, banding will allow researchers to regularly track it through GPS and provide invaluable information on its behavior.

So sometime between the holiday picnics, parades and fireworks, take a moment to catch a final glimpse of these magnificent birds before the camera is turned off for the season. I think you will agree that it is the perfect way to celebrate Independence Day.