A nesting barn owl in San Marcos, California, has become a world-wide sensation. Molly Royal, as she’s called, has been viewed by over one million people around the world through video streamed from cameras just outside her nesting box. During the day and especially during ‘prime time’ evening coverage, as many as 17,000 people have tuned in to watch her and her mate, MaGee, and now that their first chick has arrived, that number is expected to increase significantly.
During the day, viewers get extraordinary close-up glimpses of a nesting barn owl via a color video camera. At dusk, Molly-cam streaming switches to a night vision video camera. Molly spends her time sleeping, turning over her four remaining eggs (as of March 22nd), snacking on leftover rat and rabbit, and occasionally stretching her legs and wings. Since her first chick, Max, arrived on March 21st, she has touched a lot of viewers by her gentle tending of her tiny offspring, keeping it warm under her brood patch, teaching it how to eat little strips of rabbit or rat meat, and charming her fans with gentle clucking sounds directed to her chick. And Max has a healthy appetite; in 24 hours, he – or she – has more than doubled in size!
At dusk, Molly-cam streaming switches to a night vision video camera that provides black-and-white thermal images of nest box happenings. During the day, MaGee, Molly’s mate, rests in a nearby palm tree. Barn owls are nocturnal; after darkness falls, owl-cam viewers get to watch MaGee as he visits Molly several times during the night, usually bringing a fresh catch of mice, rats and rabbits. The timing of the first visit is fairly predictable, which is a bit after 7:30 p.m. PST, during which he stops by to say ‘hello.’ As MaGee approaches, Molly hears him and starts making loud chattering sounds. When MaGee enters the box, there’s much screeching (barn owls don’t hoot) and wing-flapping. They greet each other with a bonding ritual that looks like rough mating except there’s no mating going on and Molly, her eggs, and chick never gets hurt.
The owl-cam started out as a hobby project for retired real-estate broker, Carlos Royal, 67, and his wife Donna. Being nature-lovers, they have turned their one-acre property in San Marcos, southern California, into a wildlife sanctuary of sorts, attracting a wide variety of animals. About two years ago, Carlos set up an owl box, perched above a 15-foot pole. This year, he was delighted to find a pair of Barn owls showing an interest in his box, and quickly got his cameras ready to roll before Molly moved in for the duration. She laid her first egg on February 13th. Unfortunately, it was not viable and started to rot, so Molly ate it. The second egg was laid on February, 16th, followed by four more eggs, each laid about two days apart.
Carlos installed the camera so he and Donna could watch Molly and MaGee raise their chicks. Then, they decided to stream that video feed so family and friends could watch it online as well. But word of the owl-cam started spreading; the Royals watched in amazement as simultaneous viewership went from a handful of people to 50, to 500, to 1000, to 10,000 … and on March 22, more than 18,000 people tuned in to listen as Carlos answered questions sent by elementary school students in Redmond, Washington. Over one million separate IP addresses (that is, individual computer addresses) have accessed owl-cam at one time or another since it started streaming online, and that number is growing. Almost 3,500 fans have joined Molly’s Facebook page, where updates and the latest photos are posted. ‘Owl-aholics’ from all over the US and the world have also gathered in a chat room (next to the owl-cam stream window) that’s being kept children-friendly by a vigilant and protective team of volunteer moderators; in fact, one sleep-deprived coffee-fueled moderator diligently tends to the chat room all the way from The Netherlands!
What’s going on here? Wildlife cams are nothing new. But something about Molly and MaGee has deeply resonated with people. Perhaps it’s the excellent video quality from the cameras that Carlos so carefully selected for his project. The internet has made that remarkable video feed accessible around the world. Perhaps it’s curiosity about the daily lives of this secretive bird species. Perhaps it’s the life-affirming wonder of watching the pair raise a new generation that will soon take to the skies. It’s probably all those reasons and more: we are drawn to Molly and MaGee because they are wild and free, raw wonderful nature in its most elemental form.
To join the chat room: create an account on ustream.tv using the login link at the top right of the page, then enter the chat room.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.