MILWAUKEE (AP) — Five red-tailed hawks in Wisconsin have become unlikely worldwide reality stars.

Two parents returned this year to a nest on the fourth-story ledge of a University of Wisconsin-Madison building. After the hawks laid three eggs last month, school officials set up a webcam, thinking the local community might enjoy watching the chicks develop.

Once bird enthusiasts began sharing the link, thousands of viewers from across the U.S., Europe and Asia have logged on every day.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how popular the video feed has been,” said John Lalande, a systems administrator on campus. He said the website has had more than 30,000 unique visitors since the camera went online late last month, including visitors from at least 50 countries. He added that the website has gone from a few hundred hits per day to nearly 10,000 on Thursday alone.

The webcam provides a clear view of the nest and three fluffy white chicks. One or both parents are usually in the frame, as well. For now, the babies generally sit in place. If viewers are lucky, they might catch a glimpse of the parents serving up three to five meals a day that generally consist of mice, rabbits or squirrels.

In the next couple of weeks, the chicks’ down will be replaced by feathers. Viewers will then be able to see the babies flapping their little wings and walking around the nest to exercise their limbs and observe their surroundings. By mid-May, the growing chicks will grab hold of a larger twig in the nest for support and flap their wings hard enough to lift their bodies.

“Then, sooner or later, they’re going to take the plunge and zip, off they go,” said Mark Berres, a professor of avian biology at the school.

Once they leave the nest, it’s unlikely they’ll return. The parents might come back next season, as hawks often return to nests where they’ve been able to successfully raise chicks.

Berres said he’s not surprised the webcam has become so popular, as it gives viewers a connection with the real world and a chance to see nature up close. It also gives researchers a chance to study the parents’ nesting behavior and the chicks’ interactions.

School officials cautioned that smaller children and squeamish adults might find the feedings a little hard to watch.

“It can get a little gory, watching the parents tear up rabbits and squirrels, but that’s nature,” Lalande said. “I just think it’s been nice for us to be able to put it out there so a worldwide audience can watch these hawks.”

UW-Madison “hawk cam”:

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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