Quick Tips: Check out online streaming nestcam videos, or buy your own infrared nestcam, get extra cable if the box is more than 100 feet from your house, install it inside a nestbox (preferably a deep one like the Texas Blues box), hook it up to a TV or computer, and prepare for total obsession. Recognize that installing a cam before nestbuilding starts may deter box usage. IMPORTANT: Do harm to the birds or their young with your set up (e.g., overheating, exposing contents to the elements, etc.)
A nestcam mounted on the interior roof of the nestbox. The cord goes through the side ventilation slot and connects to a computer or TV.
Equipment: A nestcam is a tiny camera used to view what is happening at a nest site or roosting box. It is mounted inside the nestbox. There are cams designed specifically for nestboxes. Other folks have jerry-rigged a webcam for use, but it must be protected from the elements.
At the NABS 2006 conference, my husband and I attended a nestbox camera (AKA nestcam) workshop. We got a black and white Birdhouse Spy Cam (The Night Owl) (see instructions). The adjustable camera (which manually focuses and swivels up or down and has very sensitive sound), is mounted on the interior roof or back of the nestbox. It has six infrared diodes that provide plenty of light for day or night viewing. (Even picture from a color camera will show up as black and white when it is in infrared mode in very low light/nighttime conditions.) It allows you to be obsessed 24 hours a day.
Even if you don't get nesting birds, you can enjoy watching birds or creatures exploring the box or sleeping in it (called roosting) at night.
Warning: The downside (other than technical challenges which you should expect) of a nestcam is that you must try very hard not to become totally obsessed, freak out over what you do or do not see, or start micromanaging events. The upside is you will have an intimate, fascinating, learning experience you can share with your whole family. You can monitor the box 24/7 without physically intruding (opening) the box, right up through fledging. I believe nestcams will revolutionize our understanding of cavity-nesting birds. I think they will also provide us with much more accurate and factual information about predation. With a nestcam you can watch the secret lives of birds inside the box.
Best Nestbox Style: Generally nestcams are mounted on the underside of the roof or the rear of the nestbox. This is most easily done in a box with a removable roof. You also want to get a good view of the entire nestbox interior - it's frustrating to just see a bird head/tail. A Gilwood box (very popular with bluebirds) is not very deep, so if the nest is high, or when birds get bigger, you may not be able to see much. Finally, if you have a non-wireless camera, you need someplace to feed the cable out of the box. I think one ideal style is the Texas Bluebird Society box. It is deep and has slots on either side. See information on other nestbox styles, and their overall pros and cons.
Instead of fiddling with the tiny screws used to connect the base to the roof, I like to use 3M Dual Lock reclosable fastener (a plastic version of Velcro.)
The Camera: You can buy birdhouses with a camera pre-installed, but it is pretty easy to set it up on an existing box. I would suggest using it on a box where you can also view what is going on outside (e.g., near a window to your house) to supplement the experience. Friend Laura Sue had her husband retrofit several boxes with a removable insert that could be used to put the nestcam in any of a number of boxes, depending on which one gets used. Once a box was chosen, it is a simple matter of removing a 4" PVC cap on the roof and replacing it with one that had the camera mounted inside of it. This also raises the camera up for a wider field of view. Cornell's nestcams are mounted in a box that sits on top of the nestbox. Paul Murray and his 13 year old son Austin used a regular Logitech Webcam (relying on existing light entering through the side vents, and one small window on each side of the birdhouse that he covered with screen, which also helps dissipate the heat generated by the Webcam) to make a great Titmouse video. Webcams probably lack infrared diodes needed for low light/night viewing. The cam is about the size of a matchbox and he just put it on the interior roof of the box, holding it in place with thumbtacks and pins. The camera was positioned about 8" above the nest. A USB cable comes out of the webcam and hooks up directly to a laptop. See description (PDF file) or click on it in the Video of the Month archives.
Most wired cameras come with 100 feet of cable (analog input), which can be extended to 1000 feet (available in 100 foot sections with a plastic sleeve to waterproof connections). It is designed to be hooked up to a TV, but can also be hooked up to a computer with a special connector. It has its own power supply (the red cord.) We picked up a cheap little black and white (since the feed from ours is black & white) Jodam TV. A VCR hookup is a good idea so you don't miss anything. Having sound on the camera helps as it alerts you to action in the nestbox. The vocalizations of birds inside the nestbox are quite interesting.
The Birdhouse Spy Cam
Any camera used in a nestbox needs a very close focal point. A complaint about the Birdhouse Spycam is that the video is a bit grainy and the angle isn't wide enough to see the whole floor of the nestbox (so sometimes you just see the bird's butt.) Actually the hardest part is getting the camera in focus. They recommend pre-setting it using a piece of paper with print, and then making the final adjustment in the box. Sometimes adjustment is needed later anyway as nesting material is added and the babies get larger.
LED lights may cause excess heat build up inside a small box with poor ventilation? You do NOT want anything that will overheat birds, eggs or babies inside the box!
Computer Hookup: If you want to watch and/record the video on your computer, you will need an adapter. You usually have to buy this separately. One is called a "Nest Cam Computer Connection" but it is really an ADS VideoXpress, a little connecting box that uses USB 2.0 VideoGrabber software to put a live feed on your computer screen in a window (you set the size). The feed can then be "grabbed" and recorded onto a DVD or your hard drive. Another option is the EasyCap USB 2.0 Video Capture Adapter.
Other parties also make an AV switching device so you can switch between 3 or 4 cameras. These adapters come with some software.
Software for video capture, editing and sharing : You can also capture video through the VideoXpress box with Windows Movie Maker (which comes with Windows XP) - use the Video Capture Wizard, and select Instant VideoXpress, Audio Device: USB2.0 Analog Audio Device, Video input source; Composite.) Purple Martins R-Us uses uviewit software, which costs about $30, to control the camera and record the broadcast onto her computer.
It may be tricky to edit the video to make it a reasonable size for sharing. A 70 second video can be 1GB! if you want to produce a movie, you will need to use something like Windows Movie Maker or Camtasia Studio. Streaming over the Internet is another thing altogether. If you want to share your video online, there are services like Web Video Zone (for professional looking video) or you can post them on YouTube.
Above: ADS VideoXpress. Below: EasyCap. Both can be used to connect the camera cable to your computer.
Cost: The set up at thebirdshed.com cost $80 for the Birdhouse Spycam camera, plus $32 for one extension cable. You can get a similar color infrared camera at Sam's (see below) for $40, plus the extension cable. The ADS Tech VideoXpress hookup for the computer would be an additional $55. The EasyCap can be had for around $15. We paid $15 for a little cheapie black and white TV, but you can hook it up to an existing TV/VCR. So you can buy the whole thing for about $100-150.
Other Options: Wireless cameras are also available, but you need a power source like a solar-powered battery, I'm sure not sure what their reach is, and there may be Internet interference issues. Some color cameras are apparently not ready for prime time inside a nestbox, as they require more light, although some folks use them with a set up that allows sufficient light into the box. But I expect the technology to advance quickly.
Spy on a Bird sells a wireless nestbox or bird feeder camera with solar power. Their website says the Infrared LEDs are stronger than similar cameras, but the video samples look similar to what I get on the Sam's Club camera; although the streaming version online looks better. They also have systems with motion detection, snapshot and scheduled video recording. It connects to a computer via a wireless router. It can transmit a signal 300 feet (depending on the type and quality of the router), but they recommend 100 feet for a consistent signal.
This video was made with a Linksys wireless camera (Model WVC54GC) that transmits to a computer. It needs 120 VAC power. Linksys also makes a WVC54GCA model that comes with audio and video. However, these camaeras do not have LED lights/infrared for illumination. The box is tall, and top part of the nestbox door is open for ventilation and illumination, with a grate over it. (A nestbox wtih an open roof nestbox is no longer recommended by NABS due to concerns about hypothermia and overheating.) See blog.
NY Wild's Purple Martin cam uses an extreme wide angle weatherproof bulletcam suspended in the gourd on the same metal rod that holds the gourd. The camera is held in position by plastic screws threaded into the top of the gourd. The internal cardboard backing of the cleanout cap was removed to allow the translucency of the white plastic cap to provide soft interior illumination needed for color video. Cambrosia software is used to upload images to their website. 78
Sam's Club online sells a cheap color infrared indoor camera (Wisecom - $40 + shipping) which I have also tried. When there is not much light (like inside a regular box) the infrared kicks in and it is black & white. The detail is clear and the sound is great, and I would say it is equivalent to the Birdhouse Spycam. However, in year 1 it flickered. I got a second one and it has also malfunctioned, so I don't recommend it. They also sell a pricey time lapse VCR that records for a month.
A friend is using a wide-angle color Weldex model # 7500C Dome security camera (minus the dome) with good results, even though it's not infrared.
Shaw Creek Bird Supply sells a pre-installed wireless color camera that can be hooked up to a TV or a newer computer if it comes with TV-style RCA video/audio jacks. It's infrared, but to get color, you turn on visible light diodes. Although it's wireless, you still need power to the house to operate the camera and transmitter.
Streaming Video Online: There are some wonderful snapshot and streaming video nestcams online. Check out the list below. These nest/webcams are set up to deliver video live (in real time), 24/7 via in the Internet in what is called a "stream." I have never done this, but Susan Halpin at Purple Martins R-Us uses a Lorex Dmc2161 Long-Range Indoor/Outdoor PC Camera With Night Vision, item number 79903 (reviews on null for this camera are not positive, but Susan has had good luck with it, especially since her computer is older and she needed an external video grabber. She had good luck with their tech support.) It comes with software that allows you to record and broadcast. You connect the camera to your computer, register the IP with a streaming service, download their encoder (to protect your computer), set up your audit and video settings, and you can stream. If you want to broadcast it over the Internet so others with a computer can view it, you will need to set up a website, and get the stream to show up on a webpage. I'm sure there are many other options to do this.
Streaming can be really expensive - on the order of hundreds to thousands of dollars/month, depending on the amount of bandwidth used, whether it shuts down automatically or not, etc. Many cams rely on donations to help cover these expenses.
Free streaming services: justin.tv, ustream.tv, camstreams.com or just.tv. I can't vouch for any of these, I just know some birders use them. Only use a reliable site - you don't want to end up downloading viruses. Some work better if you have a static IP address, and have more trouble with dynamically assigned IP addresses.
Streaming using an encode program (to get the best looking video to the streaming server) may hog your CPU and slow your computer down a lot.
A "smart-box" is a DVR-driven computer that can be remotely configured to connect to the Internet and handle streaming.
Wildlife Cams: There are also weatherproof, infrared motion-activated "game" cameras that can monitor the area outside of a nestbox. They can take night and day pictures with a variety of sequence and timing options. They can be set to take only one picture every few minutes. They are expensive though. Most are very wide angle and will not focus well up close. See example. (Thanks to Kenny Kleinpeter for info).
The "NovaBird" digital infrared motion sensitive bird cam is able to focus at 15" so you can get close up pictures outside a nestbox, or at a feeder or bath. It is not a live cam. It can be mounted on a tripod or piece of rebar. I did not have good luck with the outdoor battery, so ended up plugging it in. See my birdcam setup.
Yvonne Bordelon has a Moultrie Feeder Wildlife Cam available from Walmart at just under $100.00. It will take photos, day and night, but must be at least 4 ft. away from the subject. The photos and video clips are stored in the camera or on an SD card. The battery is supposed to last for 30 days, but has only lasted for less than a week for them. The more it is triggered, the quicker it goes down.
Wingscapes also makes one that can focus 18" or farther out.
Our Installation: We were happily surprised by a late titmouse nesting in a box near the house. I don't get many titmice nesting. Since they may be somewhat more sensitive to monitoring than bluebirds, I liked the idea of monitoring via nestcam. We waited until several eggs were laid, and then got our plan and gear together to quickly install the camera on 06/15/06.
We drilled a 5/16" hole in the side of the nestbox (as there was no vent to feed the cable through - it has little slit vents down below) and one in the roof (with a long toggle bolt to mount the camera), fed the cable line through, hooked it up to power and the TV and focused it and Voila, Reality Bird TV!
By the way, I never use a drill or electric screwdriver on a box with eggs in it - I'm worried about addling. We placed the nest and eggs in a shoe box during the installation, which took about 5 minutes.
Even my husband was awed. When he saw the live feed, he said "I don't get wowed too often, but that's pretty cool!" It is such an intimate experience. We found ourselves whispering at first until we realized she couldn't hear us from 100 feet away.
Lessons Learned: A few problems:
In 2009, we put a nestcam up in a box that had been used every year by bluebirds. They moved elsewhere after checking it out. Tree Swallows also avoided the box. When the cam was removed, it was immediately used by Tree Swallows.
Gilwoods don't have much room for a cam on the roof.
It is DEFINITELY easier to install a cam on a box that has a removable/opening roof. Otherwise, get a long screwdriver.
The titmouse nest was shallow and the eggs were right up against the door. We didn't realize she was already incubating (there were only 4 eggs.) When we knocked on the box, she didn't fly out. We opened the door and she flew out, and knocked one egg onto the ground and it broke! %#*&#$*!!!!!
We got the camera installed in about 5 minutes, but it wasn't in focus. We had to disturb her one more time. Doug and I tried shouting back and forth while focusing it and didn't get it quite right, so we will have to try again tomorrow. Best to use something with writing on it, and walkie talkies.
Since the box the titmouse chose is not that deep, and the nest is high, you can't see the whole interior of the box on the TV. A bigger, deeper box like the Texas Bluebird Society nestbox would probably be better. Since that box comes with ventilation slots on either end, and the roof unscrews, installation is much easier. I kind of wish we had mounted it onto the BACK of the box, because I'm thinking when the eggs hatch and the female is feeding all we will see is the back of her head.
This SpyCam is not weatherproof, so if you drill a hole through the roof to install it, make sure the hole is sealed completely (e.g., with Mortite) to keep both camera and nest dry.
Unless your box is really close to the house, definitely buy extra cable, and hook it up to a VCR, or buy the hookup for a computer. You won't want to miss anything.
The cable can be buried or put in a PVC tube. We will have to be VERY careful not to mow it over. I like the idea of stringing it up higher through trees so you can't miss it.
After hooking up the camera, I had to reinstall the Ulead VideoStudio 9.0 Movie Wizard software to get the video capture to work (keeping getting an "Capture Module Initialization Failed. Failed to build a preview graph" error message.) You can not run two video capture software programs simultaneously (like Video Grabber and Ulead or Windows Movie Maker.)
When recording video, I have trouble getting the software to pick up the sound inside the nestbox (instead it seems to pick up sounds in my office!)
Warning: If you are already addicted to bluebirding, or tend to get too attached to a nesting family, a nestcam will probably increase that by an order of magnitude. Be careful not to become a total nestbox micromanager and interfere too much - you may do more harm than good. See Why We Get Goopy Over Bluebirds and Bluebirding Blues.
NESTCAMS ONLINE. I'm focusing the list to bluebird house birds. Streaming cams will only be active during nesting season. You won't be able to see anything outside during the night time for a cam pointed at a nest/nestbox from the outside, but an infrared nestcam on the inside of the box will have a picture 24/7.
I'm dying to try one of these. It is reasonably priced, but doesn't have a video output or ability to take snapshots.
I watched the mother build the nest, lay the eggs, sit on the eggs for long hours. I saw one of the babies in the final stages of hatching and two more after they had just hatched. They've done all that on my TV, in my living room, in my world. Their world and my world are together for now.
- Linda Moore, Bluebirding Forum, 2006
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