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Orange County-based barn owl cam attracts an international audience of online bird-watchers

April 1, 2010 |  4:38 pm

Okay, so it's not quite as cute as Shiba Inu Puppycam -- after all, Shiba Inu puppies are far less likely to be caught on video eating a rat -- but the Live Barn Owl Cam produced at the National Audubon Society's Starr Ranch preserve in Orange County is still pretty compelling viewing.

The live cam project was started a few years ago by Pete DeSimone, the ranch's manager, and Sandy DeSimone, its director of research and education, who worked with techie folks to bring barn owl viewing opportunities to the masses.

The live cam documents the lives of a nesting pair of adult barn owls and their offspring, and the DeSimones told the Orange County Register that viewership nearly doubled between last breeding season and the current one. Virtual bird-watchers from five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa, if you're keeping score) have tuned in to watch the owl family.

Broadcasting the owls' activity online isn't just about entertaining viewers, Pete DeSimone told the Register; the online community of bird-watchers can also help him study the birds and document their activities. (That's not just a nice idea -- it's one that has some precedent to back it up. Keepers at a wildlife park in Scotland were alerted to the impending birth of a southern white rhinoceros by a webcam viewer who noticed that its mother's water had broken last year.)

About 6,000 viewers tune in to see the birds each day, according to the Register.

For the DeSimones, it's gratifying to have people respond so positively to the owl cam project -- particularly elementary school classes that have been tuning in during school hours. "I hope gets kids more interested in owls, wildlife, and biology in general," Pete DeSimone writes on Starr Ranch's website.

Regular viewers are apt to leave comments on the site about the barn owl behavior they've observed; to date, the owl cam has received nearly 14,000 comments.

Another live cam that broadcasts from Starr Ranch, Black-chinned Hummingbird Cam, is somewhat less popular -- but that's mostly because the hummingbirds aren't currently nesting, and the camera points at an empty nest. Despite that tricky little detail, hummingbird fans check in from time to time hoping the birds will have arrived. Best of all, some of them leave comments with varying degrees of desperation. "cant really see the bird though but the nest is really cool and sometimes you can see bugs on the nest," Jordan wrote on Feb. 3. A slightly more panicked-sounding Jenna asked a short time later, "where are the babys? where is mom and dad? iLOVE HUMMING BIRDS BUT I DONT SEE ANY!!!!!!!!!! MY GRANDMA LOVES TO GO BIRD WATCHING!!!!!!"

There's just one problem brought about by the success of the owl cam, Pete DeSimone writes: As more viewers tune in, it costs more to maintain. To help combat the rising costs of maintaining it, he asks that viewers close out of the owl cam when not actively watching it to conserve bandwidth. (Viewers so inclined can also make a financial contribution to the project through Audubon.org.)

See the barn owls in action at StarrRanch.org.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video: The owl family as seen from the Live Barn Owl Cam in February. Credit: Trishrg via YouTube

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