Wildlife cameras give unvarnished look at nature

Tucked away in the land of $8,000-per-month studio apartments is a thriving ecosystem of predators and prey. Every spring, red tailed hawks and other raptors come back to New York to raise another generation of hunters, putting pigeons and squirrels on notice.

"There's always this excitement just as the spring thaw was starting to happen and then sure enough they've come back every year," said Colin Jerolmack, a professor of environmental studies at NYU. He keeps an eye on a nesting pair of hawks who've set up shop on a school building overlooking Washington Square Park.

They join about a dozen others, like the legendary Pale Male on the Upper East Side, that have people constantly looking up, hoping to catch them in action.

On a great sunny day, you can go outside and look up to maybe see if you can see a hawk. But how much time are you going to be able to spend out here? What are you going to be able to see? That's where a bird cam comes into play.

"This is the best way, it's better than a book because you can watch every single activity from when the nest is being prepared to the eggs being laid, the hatchings," said Al Cecere. His American Eagle Foundation operates cameras around the country, including the now famous DC Eagle Cam, which has been viewed more than 81 million times since it launched last year.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs cameras tracking all sorts of species. People have collectively spent 3 billion minutes watching them.

"We've always sort of describe our cameras as the opportunity to look at the world of birds, wildlife, and not everything that happens in that world is enjoyable to watch," said Charles Eldermire, the bird cams project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

People were outraged last year as nature took its course on Cornell's Texas Barn Owl Cam. Bad weather caused a prey shortage, four of five owlets starved, and the last was only rescued after it was abandoned.

"We got people on both sides of the equation. There are people who are strong supporters of a non-intervention policy," Eldermire said. "We have lots of people who sent us hate mail, death threats."

The DC Eagle Cam operators chose a different path, recently rescuing a stuck eaglet as a storm closed in.

"You have so many people who are just diehard animal lovers that if we didn't intervene they certainly would not look fondly upon us," Cecere said.

NYU also has a camera on its hawks.

All of these sites have warnings that nature, while beautiful, can sometimes be a cruel struggle of survival of the fittest.

"Seeing these natural things happen can be discomforting to some people because they get invested in them as individuals and they don't want to see death," Jerolmack said. "They don't want to see them being unsuccessful."