Bird Cinema: YouTube, with Feathers

The most-viewed video of all time on YouTube is "Evolution of Dance," six minutes of shake-your-tailfeather action recapping the American way of getting down. The most-viewed video of all time on "Great Horned Owl Fledgling," 59 seconds of, well, just what you might think. Except with a lot less tailfeather shaking.

For the millions of birdwatchers in the United States, though, that kind of footage is pure gold. The brainchild of Doug Myers, CEO of ACR International, an electronic database company, launched in June with the ambition of becoming YouTube for the bird set, hosting videos uploaded by some of the 46 million Americans for whom bird watching is a cherished pursuit. The site currently offers video file sharing for bird enthusiasts, but Myers and his colleagues want to expand it to become the primary source for bird video. "Our goal is to obtain footage of every species in the world and offer information on these birds, how to find them and where to go," Myers says.

Since launching on June 7, 700 user-submitted videos have been uploaded onto Birdcinema from all over the world and nearly 116,000 videos have been viewed. And although the number of Americans who actively watch birds is declining, according to a 2001 government survey, there are still millions who are jazzed by the sight of an owl sitting on a log--or even a hummingbird in their backyard. In fact, according to the survey, one in five Americans watches birds, although some are more devoted than others.

Myers is one. "I didn't realize how exciting it could be until I got into it," he says. "Sitting on the back porch, watching birds flying in and out is much more relaxing to me, and it's fun because you don't have these creatures caged up. They're free and they're wild, and you never know what's going to show up next."

The number of birdwatchers in the United States has decreased from 51.3 million in 1991 to 40.3 million in 2001. Still, nearly 18 million people travel away from home for bird-watching vacations, which is why Myers says the ability for birders to file and share their videos on his site is so important. "[More than] 20 percent of U.S. bird species are on the decline, so by creating the site we did, we're trying to preserve some of these species on video," Myers says. "There's not going to be a lot of these species left and we don't want to be stuck in the same situation we were with the ivory-billed woodpecker." (Once the largest woodpecker in North America, the ivory-billed model is thought to have been extinct since 1943, though a grainy, four-second video showing what some say is the bird shot in Arkansas in 2004 has raised new hope among some birders.)

Because bird populations are a powerful environmental indicator, birding also has a practical aspect. "Birds are an excellent indicator of environmental quality," Cornell ornithologist David Bonter says, "so if the birds disappear that is an indication that there is something wrong that is, or will, affect us."

Still, what is it about watching birds sit on logs, eat and fly in and out of view that is so fascinating? For birdwatchers, there's the thrill of the chase, and the pleasure of an intimate glimpse into the natural world. Even if it's only on a computer screen.