by Caitlin Zera                                               February 29, 2016

The short film “Our Eagles” is a charming slice of life short film that may leave you with some philosophical questions to ponder.

Our Eagles 

Directed by Emily Tope

Runtime: 10 minutes, 2015

“Our Eagles” is the story of the Decorah Eagles and the live stream that made them famous. The Decorah Eagle cam, part of the Raptor Resource Project, is a live stream that tracks the life and times of the eagles from their nest high up in the trees. Anyone anywhere can log onto the site and see what the eagles are up to. After the stream went live on the internet, thousands of people tuned in and became incredibly invested in the eagles’ health and well-being – and of course, their antics.

Director Emily Tope said in the Q&A following the film that it began as a school project while she was studying in Decorah, Iowa. The initial idea was to compile a “Best of the Decorah Eagles” from the hours and hours of footage produced by the 24 hour camera. In true documentary fashion, the project evolved and became a story about the human community that came together around the eagles, inspired to meet one another and take action to protect the eagles’ habitat.

“Our Eagles” is a cute and funny insight in and of itself but what is most interesting about it is the premise that the Decorah Eagle live stream is creating an engaged activist community.

It’s suggested in some of the interviews that people become attached to the eagles after watching the live stream – which not only shows the eagles’ daily feeding routine but life events like the hatchings of their offspring. As one could expect, views went up significantly when baby eagles were abound.

In some ways the Decorah Eagle cam is a raw version of something like “Meerkat Manor” – it’s virtually a reality television show except animals, not humans, are the stars. There’s no narrator or manipulative editing involved with the Decorah Eagle Cam but it’s not a far stretch to think that some viewers might be narrating the footage in their own heads as they watch.

It might be a little troubling, this anthropomorphizing, but ultimately, the Decorah Eagle cam gives viewers unprecedented access to this wildlife population. It may even be safe to assert that some viewers would never have become activists and conservationists if they hadn’t started watching the live stream. Many of the faithful viewers make pilgrimages to Decorah to see the eagles in person. Some have started to connect with each other in person and online. It’s clear that community is a theme in “Our Eagles.”

The camera body itself isn’t very intrusive – it’s set high up in the branches looking down at the eagle nest. It isn’t as though the eagles have been demanding that their privacy be reinstated, but to think that digital technology has allowed us to watch a creature – once so elusive – for a full 24 hours a day is sort of mind-boggling. How does tapping into a live stream on our laptops and smartphones to get an intimate view of an animal change how we think about it when we encounter it in the wild? Is building a life story about these eagles through a live stream a disservice to our understanding of wildlife, or is it the greatest advancement?
A full examination of these topics is certainly too much for the 10 minute film to get into but the film is a good jumping off point for thinking about these relationships between people and eagles, between technology and wildlife. How and why do these relationships work, what benefits do or don’t they bring, and how do they impact our perceptions of wildlife and conservation efforts?

“Our Eagles” screened at the 2016 Colorado Environmental Film Festival on Friday February 19.