Posted by: trevormeers | April 2, 2011

Wild Kingdom, Meet The Truman Show

The hottest reality show in America just might be the one broadcasting from an Iowa eagle nest.

The leader of our surveillance team stopped me for an urgent update.

“There was a changing of the guard while you were out,” she said. She all but rubbed her hands together as she stepped into the story like a gossip columnist. “The male eagle came back to the nest to take over sitting on the eggs, but he must have been late because the female eagle started pecking at him and making a lot of squawking noise. Well, I guess I don’t KNOW it was the male that came back since you really can’t tell them apart. But really, who else would be late coming back to take their turn on the eggs?”

Then she headed back to her computer to check in on the video image of a bald eagle squatted on its nest, broadcasting live via the web from a tree branch 80 feet above a stream near Decorah, Iowa. The words at the top of the browser window said, “First hatch is imminent. It could occur anytime today.”

The little counter below the video screen said 139,000-some people were tuned in to the eagle cam as America’s bird scowled over the edge of its nest and the spring wind ruffled its feathers. Sometimes it swiveled its head to check the surrounding area. Sometimes it stuck its beak into the twigs and stirred them around like a fussy aunt adjusting couch pillows. Glued to all of it were roughly 129,000 more people than show up for the average Iowa Hawkeyes basketball game.

As web-based time sucks go, this one is probably more admirable than most, considering it involves actual nature, and nurturing nature at that. It was enough to get me watching, even though I generally catch onto viral web phenomena at about the same pace as an Amish farmer. I didn’t hear about Rebecca Black for about two weeks, by which time her vanity music video had already been a viral hit, brought on angry backlash, earned her a spot to talk about her wild ride on Good Morning America and, for all I know, helped her publish an uplifting book about overcoming the tragedy of starring in a truly inane video.

But the Decorah eagle cam pulled me in, and an hour after I looked it up, I realized the eagle parents were the Brangelina of the spring of 2011. I learned that the eagle watchers were harboring some simmering resentment toward whomever is running the camera (a guy named Bob, as it turns out). Why are you zooming in so much? Why are you zooming out now? All we can see are feathers! I’m not sure what Bob’s real job is, but he’s certainly not asleep at the eagle cam switch. If the eagle stands up to stretch its wings after a long sitting session, Bob zooms in on the eggs and chicks to make sure we don’t miss anything.

I also soon learned that Bob was riling some people with what he showed from the nest. Why, some asked on message boards, would you show the dead rabbit that’s been laying on the side of the nest for two days? Do we need the violence? On that one, Bob’s simply walking the same tightrope as every nature-film director. Everybody roots for the wildebeest to get away from the lion. Unless the film is edited as a saga about the survival of the lion cubs. With that spin, everyone cheers and chalks it up to the circle of life when Mrs. Lion turns the former crowd favorite into Wildebeest Helper. I’m betting that when the eaglets start cheeping for their first meal of hosenfeffer, everybody will get off Bob’s back about the rabbit. And I surely don’t envy the tough creative calls Bob will have to make with the zoom switch if one of the eaglets croaks right there in the nest.

Some eagle watchers are angst-ridden because people are naming the eagles, which the purists deem a travesty for wild animals. But their critics respond that if it’s inappropriate to name the birds from thousands of miles away, then we may want to reconsider sticking a camera above their nest and streaming their every move to the world.

This avian drama has gotten its talons into people around the nation. CNN and NPR have reportedly done stories on the eagles and their cam. Teachers are running the live stream on big screens in their classrooms, and I heard of one local teacher who’s found that when her kids with developmental issues get rowdy, serenity returns when she sets them down to a little Eagle TV.

As I eavesdrop on people discussing how the eagles met (in 2007, according to the eagle cam’s website), when she laid the first egg (Feb. 23, 5:30 p.m.) and whether the couple seems to be growing short-tempered with one another, it’s all strangely reminiscent of The Truman Show. In the 1998 movie, the world sat on the edge of their couches, watching Jim Carrey’s life play out in a soundstage town he thought was real in front of cameras he didn’t know existed.

The eagles, at least, are living in a real nest in a real tree (as far as we know). But once the experts announced April 1 as the day the eggs should start hatching, 140,000 people tuned in, expecting an eaglet to show up on schedule like a cell-phone chime reminding you of a lunch meeting. In the movie, Truman eventually caught on to the scam his life had been, confronted the all-knowing director Cristof and escaped to the real world. If the Decorah eagles have that kind of finale tucked under their wings, I hope Bob’s ready with the zoom switch when it happens.



  1. I, too, have found myself captivated by The Eagles of Iowa. Our Assistant Principal had them on a huge screen for all of the classes during lunch for several days and let the students give her suggestions of questions to post to the live feed. It was hard for this Lunch Lady to keep her focus on the food 🙂

  2. Well, Trevor, I hope you’re happy…I didn’t know this remarkable event was even happening until I read your blog AND now I’m “hooked”! Your observations are great fun to read.

  3. Love it! I actually laughed out loud when I read the part about “why is he zooming in so much?” I think I said those precise words to my 11 year old son yesterday, followed by, “I can’t see anything!”

    Thank you for sharing!!

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