Wednesday morning, it looked like Thanksgiving high up in the leafy branches of a tree in western Pennsylvania.
Since early April, thanks to the unblinking lens of a webcam installed nearby, I have been enamored, entranced and exhilarated watching the day-to-day goings-on in a bald eagle nest along the banks of the Monongahela River just miles from Pittsburgh. The nest is home to three eaglets that, judging by the comments tumbling alongside the live video stream helpfully offered up by far more avid viewers, are just about to embark on their first flights.
Wednesday, the entire family — mom, dad and their three offspring — feasted on something late in the morning and, judging by the counter measuring the number of viewers at any given time, I along with 2,000 other people were watching every bite. Since its launch, more than 2 million views have been made to the site.
The chatter about “full crops” after feedings, “branching” as the eaglets test their balance and strength, the sibling rivalry food fight of “mantling,” and the uproar over reports of poisoned rats from an abandoned recycling center across the river being scooped up and brought to the nest for lunch have been interesting and enlightening. But for me, the stars in this 4-foot-wide arena high in the sky are simply the birds themselves.
I first clicked on the video link the day the last of the three eggs hatched. The first two eaglets were days old, scrawny and scrappy, more beak than bird. When the third one hatched, it looked pathetically, heartbreakingly slight, dwarfed by its older nest mates. I had read news reports about elementary school classrooms all over western Pennsylvania watching the nest. After a few particularly vicious pecks at the newest addition to the nest and feedings where Nos. 1 and 2 blocked access to dinner, I was afraid that we were all going to soon be seeing an awful display of the circle of life play out before our eyes.
Thankfully, I was wrong. And I was hooked.
Over the past two months, the nest has gone from being a maternity ward to a nursery to a rough-and-tumble rumpus room. On chilly spring evenings when the temperatures dipped into the 30s, I watched splotchy black-and-white nighttime footage of one of the parent eagles keeping the eaglets warm and close.
Shortly after noon one day, I clicked on just as lunch was delivered with a white-capped rush of wings.
Thanks to the video archive, I saw the clip from the night a raccoon entered the nest. The mother eagle was on the eggs, her head tucked beneath her wing. Then, in a flash, her head is up and turned, her beak cutting down like a knife. There’s a blur in the foreground as the raccoon pounces. The eagle’s wings unfurl and beat the night. The eagle hovers just above the eggs, her legs stretched forward, talons extended to claw the intruder. It is a magnificent, awful sight. The raccoon retreats. There are a few anxious moments of watchfulness and then quiet and then a head dipped back beneath a wing.
I was enthralled by the power and the fierceness, the protection and the fight.
I’ve watched as the eaglets have huddled in recent rains, dripping and dismal. I’ve watched in recent weeks as they have flapped and hovered and hopped, seeming to be testing the limits to their freedom and flight.
Increasingly, the parents have been less visible, still vigilant but not in the nest. Which is why the Wednesday morning brunch was quite the sight as all five members of this family seemed to enjoy a rare meal together. Al fresco dining with a blue sky wide open above.
I know that there are debates about this whole webcam business and how people, myself included, are too quick to assign human traits to these birds. I haven’t named them because I can’t tell them apart.
For me, in a time when I am all too often dispirited and jaded and disappointed in the day-to-day drone of national events and world news, Pittsburgh’s eagles have been beautiful and powerful and thrilling.
And, most of all, they have given me hope. In survival. In resilience. In the power of nature and the reverence of creation. And in family.
And for that I give thanks.
Chris Arbutina writes a monthly column for the CDT.