A Cuyahoga Falls bird feeding station gets human visitors from hundreds of miles away
Winter brings a lot of hungry birds to backyard feeders. One setup in Cuyahoga Falls draws a lot of people, too, some from hundreds of miles away. They watch Scott Keller's bird feeders through a 24/7 live camera on YouTube and on his website, BirdWatchingHQ.com.
"How much snow did you get here?" I asked Keller as we walked through deep snow to his bird feeding station.
"I think when I first came out, it was about 18 inches," he said. My visit was two days after Northeast Ohio's first big snow storm of 2022, on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
I’m here to see Keller’s set-up. I watch it all the time at work. My colleagues and I stream it on one of the monitors in the newsroom.
Ideastream Public Media's Amy Eddings, right, interviews Scott Keller in his backyard about his bird feeding station. In the background is the pole-mounted high-definition security camera he uses for his 24/7 live cam. The cone is a baffle he installed after a raccoon used the pole and camera as a launch pad to leap onto a platform bird feeder. [Jean-Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media].
Birds were everywhere in the neighboring trees, watching us as we interrupted their lunch. I pointed at one that landed close to us.
"Oh, look, who's that?" I asked, as one landed just a few feet away from us, on a branch that was about eye level to me.
"We got a black capped chickadee right there. If you look up in that tree, there's a woodpecker, downy woodpecker, right up there in that tree," Keller said.
Forty-two bird species visited his feeders last year, he said. Fans of his YouTube channel keep track. He’s got 60,000 subscribers. Seven hundred people were watching during my visit.
Scott Keller's BirdWatchingHQ.com YouTube channel has 60,000 subscribers. At any given time, about 700 to 800 people are watching the live stream from as far away as Sri Lanka and as close as the folks at Ideastream Public Media in Cleveland. [Jean-Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media]
It all started six years ago, after Keller and his wife had their first child. (He has two — a daughter and a son.) Keller was housebound. He wasn’t used to that.
"I'm a biology major. I've loved the outdoors and animals and nature, so I was kind of looking for something on the side to help keep me occupied," he said.
He set up a birdfeeder along the back edge of his property and started a website about it. He blogged about the birds he wanted to see and what seeds and feeders he used to attract them.
"And it started taking off. Some of these articles started ranking on Google, and I was like, wow, this is actually...you know, I remember making a dollar for the first time on the website. Like, this is all right. This is, this is awesome."
Keller makes enough money from the YouTube feeds, his blog and the sale of bird feeders and other merchandise that he recently started doing BirdWatchingHQ.com full-time.
"I just left my job about six months ago. I was an insurance agent for 10 years," he said. "It was a great job, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t this. It wasn’t what I was super passionate about."
Keller added the camera a few years later, as an additional teaching tool. And what a tool it is. There are scores of live cams out there, broadcasting fuzzy, gray-scale, low-definition images from zoo enclosures or bald eagle’s nests. The high-definition video from Scott Keller's camera is so crisp, you can see the outline of feathers, the scales on a claw, the bright stained-glass window pattern on a blue jay’s back.
Keller said he uses a high-definition 4K security camera that connects directly into his modem. He said this camera, a second one pointed to a feeding station on the ground, and the underground wiring system from the cameras to his house cost him about $3,000. "I wanted no expense spared," he said.
"So, the cameras each cost about a thousand dollars. There’re two of them." He pointed to one mounted on the top of a thick post, and one mounted near the bottom, closer to the ground. "These wires go underground through conduit all the way — " Keller pointed around his backyard above-ground swimming pool " — wrap around, right into our modem. It’s not a WiFi camera." He gave a little laugh. "I wanted to go all in on it!"
That second camera points at a platform feeder on the ground, for ground-feeding birds and critters like rabbits, raccoons, and the bane of bird feeders, squirrels.
"Yeah, I kind of go with the 'You can't beat 'em' approach. I like squirrels, you know, I just I don't want them up here. I want the squirrels down here to eat as much as they, as they possibly want."
Keller’s website has more than 100 articles with tips like this. He spends about $250 a month on bird food. He buys in bulk and keeps the seeds in metal garbage cans in a backyard shed.
"This has cracked corn in it. This has peanuts, shelled peanuts," he said. His advice for attracting Ohio's A-List birds — cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, tufted titmouse and crows — striped sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and peanuts.
Keller uses a mix of thick-hulled striped sunflower seeds, whole-kernel corn and safflower seeds during the winter. Squirrels and starlings don't like safflower seed, while starlings don't have the beaks to manage the corn or this type of sunflower seed. [Jean-Marie Paopi / Ideastream Public Media]
Bird feeding is a multi-billion-dollar industry. At least 59 million Americans feed birds and wildlife around their homes, and spend more than $5 billion a year to do so, according to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.
It may seem harmless, even helpful, but bird feeding has risks. Wildlife experts say it can change bird behavior, induce more collisions into glass windows, and spread disease. Last summer, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recommended residents take down bird feeders temporarily, after reports of a mysterious illness that was killing songbirds in parts of Ohio, seven other states and the District of Columbia.
Keller said it’s important to regularly clean and disinfect bird feeders. But, overall, he believes the benefits of bird feeding outweigh the risks.
"Some millions of people are feeding birds, and, you know, mass amounts of birds aren’t dying from diseases because of it," he said. "I think, more than anything, it’s helping birds, helping inspire people."
One fan in Bear, Delaware, uses the BirdWatchingHQ live cams to teach her teenage daughter about birds. Lucille Avakian told me it also keeps her connected to the natural world. She has an autoimmune disease that limits her mobility.
"I haven’t been able to go for a walk in the woods for over seven years, which has been very tough" she said. "And when I hear the feeder sounds, right there, in my room, it’s so healing. It’s really being able to be in nature. It’s the internet at its best, in my opinion."
Keller uses hopper feeders that close off the food supply if a squirrel or a heavier bird such as a starling lands on the perch bar. It deters them while allowing lighter, "A-List" birds like blue jays and cardinals to feed. [Jean-Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media]
Keller said people tell him they stream his live cams for their cats. His son’s preschool uses them to keep the kids calm. He said he’s received donations from people whose loved ones watched his backyard birds from their nursing home or hospital beds.
He’s okay with all of it. Scott Keller just wants to share his love of birds and maybe inspire you to put up a bird feeder yourself, see what comes to it. He believes that small action can transform how you feel, what you think, and what you do.
"You know, when I started feeding the birds, all this landscaping you see around here, it wasn’t here. We just had that normal yard full of pesticides and fertilizers. You know, so, it's, it’s not just about the birds. It’s like this whole ecosystem you can do. It’s one thing to see things on a nature documentary which are awesome and see something in Africa or the Arctic, and you know you need to protect that, but it's just such a far place away. But when you see it in your backyard, and you really care," he said, "that really, it hits closer to home."