Live-streaming Internet webcams focused on animal subjects generally are targeted at public audiences, but have the potential to be utilized by college students for studies on animal behavior and ecology. I describe how a bird feeder webcam provided a flexible and quality visual interface for students to record video samples for an ornithology class research project. Details on the operational aspects of the webcam are provided, and factors to be considered in evaluating webcams for potential student research are discussed.

Introduction

Today's students are frequent personal users of Internet streaming sources for viewing live or pre-recorded video content on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix. Live-streaming webcams (hereafter, webcams) are one component of today's online technology that can provide teachers a means to take their students on cyber field trips, or to provide inquiry-based activities including research projects.

Webcams that provide viewing of captive or wild animals are operated by government and non-government conservation entities, media groups, educational groups, and private individuals or entities. Masatoshi and Kawakami (2002) were among the first to demonstrate that streaming technology could be successfully used to monitor wildlife remotely via the Internet. MacNulty et al. (2008) used a satellite up-link to the Internet to transmit data in real time from video cameras located within Yellowstone National Park to their lab in Minnesota, allowing them to remotely monitor the abundance, distribution, and behavior of large mammals across open areas within the park, but their video feed was not available for public viewing. Whereas these early studies explored how live-streaming Internet camera systems could be used for wildlife research, today's animal-focused webcams are more commonly employed to give a public viewing audience an inside look at animal behaviors and habitats, along with the promotion of the conservation and educational goals of the webcam sponsors (see webcams at www.mangolinkcam.com and www.explore.org).

Although wildlife webcam sponsors’ main goals today are generally not to provide observational opportunities for scientific studies, scientists have used such webcams: for example, to assess the relationship between environmental factors and aggression in captive flamingos (Peluso et al., 2013), to study aspects of the ecology of wildlife at African waterholes (Hayward & Hayward, 2012), and to monitor autumn attendance at a seabird colony site (Harris & Wanless, 2016). Hayward and Hayward (2012) noted that their use of public webcams in operation at several wildlife parks provided them an inexpensive method of remote data collection on animal use at waterholes, and concluded that webcams “provide novel ways of studying wildlife behaviour when coupled with creative scientific research thinking” (p. 216). Harris and Wanless (2016) used a public webcam and found it to be an effective means of monitoring attendance at a Guillemot (Uria aalge) colony site. The only limitation they mentioned about the webcam had to do with image quality.

To date, student use of live webcams for conducting research on wildlife is underutilized. Large numbers of nest-viewing webcams are deployed for birds such as Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), but college students have not utilized Osprey webcams for research (Cushing & Washburn, 2014). In a paper describing how online media such as live webcams could be used as a new source of behavioral data, Rault et al. (2013) stated that “recordings of webcam streams could form the basis of undergraduate laboratory projects, allowing students to work with the species they are most interested in” (p. 806).

I utilized a publicly available webcam for a student research project in my upper-level, college ornithology course. This project was designed to provide my students with a convenient and remote method to observe wild birds, collect data on bird activities, summarize data with basic descriptive statistics and graphs, and communicate results in a final paper. I was already familiar with a webcam that provided a close-up view of bird feeders. Here, I (1) describe how that webcam was used to obtain video-clip samples, (2) briefly describe how students quantified bird visits using the video-clip samples, (3) provide some examples of the types of data that were obtained from the video-clip samples, and (4) discuss factors to consider in using wildlife webcams for student research projects in courses. As this was a trial webcam-based research project, it was not designed to include a formal evaluation of project-related learning outcomes or student performance metrics.

Bird Feeder Webcam Project Example

The Webcam

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology operates a series of webcams (cams.allaboutbirds.org/), one of which is called the FeederWatch Cam. It is located in the Treman Bird Feeding Garden at the lab (42.48°N, 76.45°W), Ithaca, NY. The webcam's field of view is directed at a group of bird feeders that are maintained and filled with food by staff at the lab. The webcam streams 24/7 on the YouTube Live platform, and includes a DVR feature that allows viewers to rewind up to four hours from the live time. The viewing quality of the webcam is adjustable at various resolution increments from high-definition settings of 1080p and 720p, to a low of 144p, and can be viewed in “full screen” mode. The web page's window includes a date/timestamp. The lab's staff maintained a 6-feeder setup at the webcam during this study (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Portion of the web page for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's FeederWatch Cam. The feeders were a priori designated 1–6. Note the date and timestamp (running clock) within the black bar below feeder 6, and the temperature/weather condition information in the photo's lower-left corner. This screen capture was taken with the webcam's quality set at 720p.

Figure 1.

Portion of the web page for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's FeederWatch Cam. The feeders were a priori designated 1–6. Note the date and timestamp (running clock) within the black bar below feeder 6, and the temperature/weather condition information in the photo's lower-left corner. This screen capture was taken with the webcam's quality set at 720p.

Video Recording of Webcam

Many screen capture applications are currently available for Windows and Apple computers. The Windows 10 operating system includes an Xbox application that can be used to capture virtually any type of screen activity and save it as a video clip. Apple computers come with QuickTime Player, which has a screen recording feature and can then be used to play back recorded videos. There are also many third-party Windows/Apple applications available for free download or for purchase. A Google search can locate currently available screen capture applications, and the YouTube web site contains videos demonstrating how to make screen video recordings.

While some students were already familiar with how to conduct video screen captures on their computers, I discussed available applications, and gave demonstrations using QuickTime Player. After students were comfortable using the application of their choice, they made test recordings of the FeederWatch Cam's view-window. I required them to make test recordings to ensure they could obtain video clips of sufficient resolution and quality to allow easy identification of bird species and feeding activities from the recorded videos. I provided feedback on their test videos, and we discussed potential problems or limitations related to factors such as Internet speed, viewing resolution, and screen size (see below). This video testing period preceded the start of the formal video sampling for the project.

Video Sampling

Students used the webcam's timestamp as the official clock to follow for recording-period start and stop times, and they recorded live activities and/or used the DVR feature of the webcam's system to record periods within the previous four hours of the live time. They recorded 10-minute time periods (hereafter, 10-min periods) of video during a single week for each of the months January (15–21), February (12–18), and March (12–18). Each day of the week was divided into three blocks of time (hereafter, blocks): morning (0800–1000 EST), mid-day (1100–1300), and late-day (1400–1600). This design generated 12 10-min periods for each block, with a total of 252 possible 10-min periods for each week. Students were required to sign up for a minimum of three 10-min periods per week and to distribute them among the blocks. A shared calendar schedule on Google Docs with days/blocks/10-min periods was made and updated as required; only one student recorded any 10-min period. I also made recordings of several 10-min periods not taken by students, which I later distributed to increase the sample size.

Sampling Restrictions and Weather Data

Recordings were not made during periods of high winds that caused excessive feeder movement or when precipitation was heavy. For each period, students recorded air temperature, general weather condition, and wind speed and direction. Real-time temperature and general weather condition (e.g., clear, overcast, light snow, etc.) from a weather station about 3.5 km SE of the feeders is displayed on the webcam page (Figure 1). Wind speed/direction for that weather station could be obtained by clicking on the temperature/condition graphic, or obtained for other weather stations closer to the feeders (www.wunderground.com/). If one or more squirrels (Sciurus) were present on the feeder at the start time for the recording, or appeared during the recording session, recording was not attempted, or the recording was terminated as squirrel activity at the feeders influenced feeder use by birds (personal observation). When student recording sessions were cancelled (e.g., weather) or aborted/rejected (squirrels), they were instructed to select other open periods as replacements.

Quantifying Bird Activity from Recordings

Screen capture recordings of bird activity on the FeederWatch Cam allowed students to quantify activities at their leisure, control video-play functions (e.g., pause, fast forward, rewind), and seek help with questions about bird identification and activity assessment. Prior to student's viewing video samples, I provided a list of species they would likely observe, and I discussed identification of those species in class. For each 10-min video only one student viewed the video and quantified bird visits.

For each 10-min period, students recorded date, block, period, air temperature, weather condition, and wind speed/direction. A bird landing on a feeder was designated as a visitation event. A bird had to land on a feeder to be counted as a visitation event. For each visitation event the bird species and the feeder number were recorded. Also, whether the bird made at least one feeding attempt was recorded as yes or no. Prior to student's viewing video samples and quantifying bird activities, I discussed various visitation scenarios they would potentially observe, and we discussed how to code them in an Excel worksheet (see Figure 2, below). The simplest was a bird landing on a feeder, making a feeding attempt, or not, and then flying away. A more complicated scenario might involve a bird landing on a feeder, then moving to an adjacent feeder, and then returning to the first feeder before flying away. The first example represents a one bird visit by one individual. The second example represents three bird visits by one individual. A group consensus was made on how to code the data for the various scenarios.

Data Structure

Information on bird visits to the feeders was entered into Excel, with each row representing a single visitation event. Column data entered for each visitation event included: month, day, date, weather conditions, temperature, wind direction, wind speed, daily block, 10-min period, feeder number, species, and whether the bird made a feeding attempt. I provided the students with an Excel workbook that provided a template for the order of the column variables (see Figure 2). We discussed and agreed on methods to code cell values to simplify data entry, as some students entered data directly into Excel as they viewed each video. The list of likely bird species included numeric codes to be used for data entry (Figure 2). Class time was spent discussing how the data could be summarized with simple descriptive statistics and presented with Excel features such as Pivot Tables and Charts. At a minimum, summaries were required for: (1) feeder visitation rates, (2) percent visits to the different feeders, and (3) percent of feeding attempts. Students were encouraged to explore and summarize the data with regard to other variables (e.g., temperature and weather conditions). I required students to submit a final written report describing their methodology and results.

Figure 2.

Excel workbook format that students used to enter data. Each row includes data recorded for a single bird visit. Numeric codes were used for species (column K). In column L: Y = yes, N = no. Rows 4 and 5 represent a single bird that first landed on feeder 1 (did not attempt to feed), then moved to feeder 6. Rows 12–15 represent a single bird that moved between feeders 4 and 6.

Figure 2.

Excel workbook format that students used to enter data. Each row includes data recorded for a single bird visit. Numeric codes were used for species (column K). In column L: Y = yes, N = no. Rows 4 and 5 represent a single bird that first landed on feeder 1 (did not attempt to feed), then moved to feeder 6. Rows 12–15 represent a single bird that moved between feeders 4 and 6.

Selected Examples of Data Summaries

Students quantified bird activity from a total of 106 10-min periods (17.7 hours) out of a possible 126 hours available during the three weeks of sampling. Students observed a total of 16 species of birds at the feeders in the 106 sample videos, with a total of 2,637 bird visits. Only select results from the student analyses are presented here as data-summary examples because the focus of this paper is on student-based research potential of wildlife webcams, not a detailed presentation of methodology and results for this particular bird feeding project (see Discussion and Summary). Since an equal number of video sample periods among months or blocks was not available, bird visitation was expressed as the average number of visits per 10-min period. Averages, by daily block, for the five species of birds that were most frequently observed visiting the feeder complex is given in Table 1, and the percent of visits to the individual feeders for each of those species is given in Table 2. Table 3 gives the percentages of the total bird visits observed during the study (all 16 species pooled) among the feeders, by month and daily block.

Table 1.
Average number of bird visits per 10-minute period (by daily block and all blocks combined) for the five species of birds that were most frequently observed visiting the feeder complex (months pooled).
SpeciesNumber of visits per 10-minute period
MorningMid-dayLate-dayAll day
Red-winged Blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus 
5.23 4.46 7.33 5.62 
European Starling
Sturnus vulgaris 
2.95 3.43 3.18 3.18 
Black-capped Chickadee
Poecile atricapillus 
1.43 3.29 5.12 3.16 
Blue Jay
Cyanocitta cristata 
4.00 1.46 0.27 2.04 
Common Grackle
Quiscalus quiscula 
1.10 2.29 2.82 2.01 
Number of 10-minute video samples 39 34 33 106 
SpeciesNumber of visits per 10-minute period
MorningMid-dayLate-dayAll day
Red-winged Blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus 
5.23 4.46 7.33 5.62 
European Starling
Sturnus vulgaris 
2.95 3.43 3.18 3.18 
Black-capped Chickadee
Poecile atricapillus 
1.43 3.29 5.12 3.16 
Blue Jay
Cyanocitta cristata 
4.00 1.46 0.27 2.04 
Common Grackle
Quiscalus quiscula 
1.10 2.29 2.82 2.01 
Number of 10-minute video samples 39 34 33 106 
Table 2.
Percent of bird visits among feeders for each of the species of birds listed in Table 1 (months pooled).
SpeciesPercent of bird visits to each of the six feeders
123456
Red-winged Blackbird 13.0 26.4 3.1 9.7 47.8 
European Starling 19.0 11.7 23.0 1.7 44.6 
Black-capped Chickadee 7.0 37.8 2.3 28.2 1.2 23.5 
Blue Jay 1.4 1.4 59.5 37.7 
Common Grackle 8.8 9.7 9.2 1.4 2.8 68.1 
SpeciesPercent of bird visits to each of the six feeders
123456
Red-winged Blackbird 13.0 26.4 3.1 9.7 47.8 
European Starling 19.0 11.7 23.0 1.7 44.6 
Black-capped Chickadee 7.0 37.8 2.3 28.2 1.2 23.5 
Blue Jay 1.4 1.4 59.5 37.7 
Common Grackle 8.8 9.7 9.2 1.4 2.8 68.1 
Table 3.
Percent of total bird visits (all 16 species pooled) among the feeders by month and daily block.
Month
Daily block
Percent of bird visits to each of the six feeders
123456
January 4.9 16.8 5.4 8.0 19.1 45.8 
Morning 4.8 8.6 7.5 2.2 32.3 44.6 
Mid-day 4.8 23.7 1.4 13.6 7.5 49.0 
Late-day 5.6 25.8 9.3 13.0 5.6 40.7 
February 9.1 23.2 11.5 13.5 3.9 38.8 
Morning 9.8 25.5 13.6 9.2 4.9 37.0 
Mid-day 12.0 20.1 10.5 9.6 3.3 44.5 
Late-day 4.5 24.7 10.4 24.0 3.3 33.1 
March 13.1 17.4 7.0 6.6 4.0 51.9 
Morning 13.6 12.4 4.7 4.1 7.6 57.6 
Mid-day 10.4 20.7 9.8 8.0 3.0 48.1 
Late-day 14.7 19.0 6.9 7.7 1.8 49.9 
All months 11.1 18.5 7.7 8.2 6.2 48.3 
Month
Daily block
Percent of bird visits to each of the six feeders
123456
January 4.9 16.8 5.4 8.0 19.1 45.8 
Morning 4.8 8.6 7.5 2.2 32.3 44.6 
Mid-day 4.8 23.7 1.4 13.6 7.5 49.0 
Late-day 5.6 25.8 9.3 13.0 5.6 40.7 
February 9.1 23.2 11.5 13.5 3.9 38.8 
Morning 9.8 25.5 13.6 9.2 4.9 37.0 
Mid-day 12.0 20.1 10.5 9.6 3.3 44.5 
Late-day 4.5 24.7 10.4 24.0 3.3 33.1 
March 13.1 17.4 7.0 6.6 4.0 51.9 
Morning 13.6 12.4 4.7 4.1 7.6 57.6 
Mid-day 10.4 20.7 9.8 8.0 3.0 48.1 
Late-day 14.7 19.0 6.9 7.7 1.8 49.9 
All months 11.1 18.5 7.7 8.2 6.2 48.3 

Discussion and Summary

One factor in evaluating a webcam for potential student research use is the webcam's ability to provide a clear field of view that will allow identification of the animal subjects and the area of anticipated animal activity. The FeederWatch Cam provided a flexible and quality visual interface for my ornithology students to investigate bird feeder use and feeding patterns. Several features of the webcam's setup and operational interface collectively provided a viewing environment that allowed the students to easily view and identify birds: close-up view of the feeders; the ability to select a viewing resolution at a high-definition setting; and setting the viewing window size to full-screen.

A second factor to consider is Internet speed (bandwidth) for streaming webcam video. Higher speeds are required for viewing at high-definition resolutions, thus if such resolution is necessary, then students would need to make sure that bandwidth was sufficient to prevent video upload interruptions. Although students may have a fast connection available at their school, they might find bandwidth at their place of residence can only support lower settings that might not provide sufficient video resolution and viewing quality. My students found that a setting of 480p was sufficient, but high-definition settings provided better resolution. The webcam's running clock provided a means to assess potential interruption problems. Students occasionally noticed time gaps in their recorded video samples due to short periods when the videostream froze. The clock would be observed stopping at a particular time with the video image freezing (e.g., 15:13:25), then the video would resume several seconds later (e.g., 15:13:34), which in this example is a nine-second video gap. Since some of the observed bird visits were as short as three seconds, such video gaps could have resulted in some visits being missed.

Other factors to consider include computer screen size, video capture options, and video file size. The larger the computer's screen, the larger the possible viewing window, and full-screen video capture maximizes the final size of the viewing window. I would recommend that video screen captures be done at a high-definition resolution (if possible), at a full-screen view on computers with 13″ or larger screens. The size of resulting video files will impact file storage requirements. Ten-minute screen captures I recorded with QuickTime Player at 1080p (audio turned off) produced file sizes of about 727, 521, and 182 megabytes when exported/saved at settings of 1080p, 720p, and 480p, respectively. Students will need to be aware of potential video file sizes that will be generated from their resolution settings and recording times, and determine if they will have sufficient file storage capacity.

The webcam's DVR function gave students greater flexibility with regard to timing of their recordings. For example, if a student was scheduled to record from 0930 to 0940, he/she could record the live feed during that time period, or at any time within 4 hours after 0930. Thus, if a student was not ready to start recording at 0930, they would still have the opportunity of recording that 10-min period after it passed. If a webcam chosen for a project did not have this DVR function, then a strict adherence to scheduling for recordings would be critical.

Unlike real-time data collection, video recordings can be re-played any number of times. Thus, the ability to view recorded videos multiple times allowed my students to more accurately assess and quantify bird activity than would have been possible if they had attempted to transcribe data while making one-time, real-time personal observations of the webcam. Activity was sometimes frenzied at the 6-feeder complex, thus making it difficult to observe and record information on all of the visiting birds. Media player applications with features such as adjusting playback speed (slower or faster), pause, and single frame forward or backward provided students with flexible video playback control. When bird activity was high, students were able to slowly progress through the video using the playback features mentioned, or observe the activities of one bird at a time and then rewind to observe another bird.

The FeederWatch webcam allowed my ornithology students to conduct a research project without the logistical challenges associated with observing wild birds in person. Although the project quantified feeder use, other research topics could have been addressed with the video samples, such as behavioral interactions between individual birds at the feeders or variability in time spent by individuals/species during feeding bouts. In a 100-level biology course I taught during the same semester, students made observations of an active Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest located in Florida via a publicly popular webcam (http://www.dickpritchettrealestate.com/). For that project, I had the students compile a journal chronicling the behavioral development of the lone eaglet in the nest and its interaction with the parents. There are webcams viewing the nests of many species of birds (see https://www.viewbirds.com/), thus providing opportunities for studies of incubation and nesting activities. Some nest webcams incorporate infrared lights so that night-time activities can be viewed. There is a wide variety of invertebrate and vertebrate animals that are the focus of webcams (see webcams at www.mangolinkcam.com and www.explore.org), thus providing opportunities to address research questions related to behavior and ecology in diverse animal groups.

In summary, the diversity of animal-centric webcams currently available on the Internet provides unique opportunities for the development of research projects that can be carried out by college students. Webcams can be utilized to study various aspects of animal behavior and ecology without actual field visits, but technological aspects of webcams, computers, screen capture applications, and Internet bandwidth need to be considered when evaluating potential webcam use. Video recorded from webcam views provides convenient and easy to use samples that can be re-played any number of times.

Thanks to Ben Walters, Bird Cams communication specialist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for providing information about the feeders, and direct coordination and assistance with operation of the feeders and the webcam. Thanks also to the staff at the Wild Birds Unlimited store at the lab for helping to maintain and fill the feeders. Lastly, I would like to thank the students in my ornithology course for being the “guinea pigs” in this pilot webcam project.

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