Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The world's best reality TV, right here in our back yard

As someone who has very little patience with things that move slowly, I’m surprised that I’m into this eagle thing.

For the benefit of those of you who recently emerged from comas, the “eagle thing” is the Raptor Research Project. It involves a set of cameras trained on a nest of bald eagles in Decorah. Within the past few days, all three eggs in the nest have hatched; the parents take turns sitting on the eaglets, switching off every 45 minutes or so. The parents hunt, bring prey back to the nest, and pick it apart to feed themselves and the babies.

It’s all up close and personal; as I sit at my desk eating my lunch, I’m looking at the eagles’ midday treat: a bloody muskrat in rigor mortis, claws in the air, having its insides dissected by the mother eagle. Appetizing? No. Fascinating? Absolutely.

This is authentic reality TV. Although it sometimes seems suspiciously as if the eagles are playing to the cameras, the devices are located far enough away that the eagles can’t see them; if they do catch a glimpse, they, of course, have no idea what cameras are. So we’re seeing nature at close range, in the way it truly unfolds.

Sometimes it’s pretty darned mundane. The mom and dad sit in the nest, on top of the eaglets, for insanely long periods of time. But occasionally, you catch a glimpse of something that makes you wonder how these two birds could be behaving in a fashion that we would regard as "human."

Case in point: Earlier this week, the dad eagle accidentally caught one of the eaglets in his beak as he was pecking at something in the middle of the nest. As he lifted and turned his head, he flung the baby a few inches, causing him to land frighteningly close to the edge of the nest. A hawk swooped overhead. Cue the dramatic musical score.

But then the mom came back. Settling herself into the nest, she gave the dad a look similar to one I would have given my husband if I had come home from an errand and found that one of my kids had been flung somewhere. She glared, and he flew off; she then proceeded to use her beak to gently maneuver the little guy back where he needed to be.

The instinctual way the eagles care for their young reminds me of the way I reacted when I had my first child. I didn’t have the vaguest idea how to breastfeed, for instance, but as soon as I held my son in the proper position, he seemed to know. I carried the kids in Snuglis and front carriers because the devices seemed to help them feel more secure. And when they cried, I felt a physical reaction down to my core. The eagles seem to have figured out all of this and so much more, and something tells me they don’t second-guess themselves.

Of course, as enjoyable as all this is to watch, there’s also a certain degree of risk involved; statistics tell us for every 20 eagles born, only about three survive their first harsh winter. Chances are pretty good, then, that we may end up witnessing something upsetting and gross. For the time being, though, in a world that moves so fast, it’s nice to train our eyes on something that runs on nature’s time.

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