Electronic birdwatching - a new use for cyberspace

Somewhere in North Carolina this week, an Eastern bluebird is busy nurturing five tiny nestlings through their first days of life. After the relative calm of sitting on her nest for two weeks, she must now feed and protect the brood that hatched over the weekend.

What sets this mother apart from the legions of other birds nesting this spring is a camera mounted in her birdhouse. Ever since she arrived May 8 with the first nest material, the camera has clicked once a minute, recording her moves. Best of all, the pictures aren't just for researchers. Visitors to Cornell University's Ornithology Lab site on the Internet have been able to watch as she built a nest, laid five sky-blue eggs, then incubated them, leaving only long enough to feed.

Welcome to cybernature, which gives sophisticated new meaning to the old phrase "bird's-eye view" as it offers an amazingly up-close-and-personal view of an aviary maternity ward. More than providing entertainment, Internet sites like this serve as a way for experienced bird-watchers and neophytes to share the wonder of the cycles of nature.

The project has a dual purpose: education and research. "People of all ages are learning how to monitor a nest box," explains Colleen DeLong, education coordinator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. Because relatively little is known about North America's unique cavity-nesting birds, visitors to the site are encouraged to record their own sightings of bluebirds, then send the information via e-mail.

"Our field crew is every American we can get involved," says Ms. DeLong.

Although some songbirds are declining at alarming rates, cavity-nesters that use nest boxes, such as bluebirds, are not necessarily in trouble, DeLong says. Yet because research funding often doesn't become available until a species is endangered, the findings of this "field crew" could serve as a preventive measure, helping identify problems before they threaten a species.

This kind of monitoring promises to become more important than ever as America grows increasingly urban, and as city dwellers and suburbanites alike find themselves more removed from nature. As bulldozers plow meadows and cornfields into manicured suburban cul-de-sacs, residents encroach on wildlife habitats, then fret when wildlife also encroaches on them.

The result is an uneasy coexistence. We want nature, but on our terms. A strange contradiction exists. We worry, rightly, about endangered species. Yet here and there, we increasingly view nature as a nuisance.

We do not, for example, want deer nibbling shrubbery on exurban lawns or darting across suburban highways. Nor do we necessarily want Canada geese taking up residence in every park and green space. On the golf course where I walk in the evening, the groundskeeper periodically patrols in a cart. But when he shoos geese from one water hole, they simply move, undaunted, to another one.

Other suburbanites continue to search for the perfect squirrel-proof bird feeder, not to mention the perfect chemicals to banish insects and other pests that ruin well-tended lawns.

Two weeks ago the monarch butterfly alighted on Page 1 as the subject of troubling news. Researchers have found that a genetically altered form of corn produces a wind-borne pollen that can kill monarchs. Some scientists fear that this new pest-resistant corn could endanger the butterfly, which already faces threats from logging in its winter resting grounds in Mexico and from the use of herbicides on milkweeds.

It has been nearly 40 years since Rachel Carson published her eloquent "Silent Spring," a dire warning about the potential harm of pesticides to the environment. The book stands as a reminder of the still-urgent need to find ways to live harmoniously with the natural world, from bluebirds and monarchs to deer and Canada geese.

Cornell Ornithology Lab's Internet site: http://birdsource.tc.cornell.edu/ birdhouse/cam/nestboxcam99.htm

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