The Life of Birds

The Life of Birds – Review

Wendy Marston

The Life of Birds, a ten-part series airing on public broadcasting stations from July 20 to September 28.

ONE NIGHT, COMING HOME FROM A long weekend, I heard a rustling in the chimney I pointed a flashlight into the blackness, and eyes blinked back at me. I retreated to the kitchen, hoping the animal would leave, but when I returned a great homed owl had taken possession of my coffee table. He stood there, more than two feet high, looking about the room with a mixture of poise and panic. Then he gracefully launched himself up–and crashed into the ceiling. In the end I had to enlist the help of a neighbor; we threw a sheet over him and carried him out.

Every day, birds flit through our world but only occasionally do they make themselves known to us in intimate ways. I never understood how my owl had flown straight down into the chimney Had he fallen? Had he been pushed by a jealous rival? But now I know what probably happened, thanks to Sir David Attenborough and his ten-part series on PBS entitled The Life of Birds.

Owls and most other hunting birds can dive straight down; some hawks can even hover, dive, and hover again as they move in on their prey. “The Mastery of Flight,” the second episode in the series, follows a snowy-faced barn owl, which flies silently and with great precision, gliding just above the ground at dusk. These birds use their sensitive hearing to guide them, but they are occasionally undone by their weak eyesight. My owl had probably been hunting mice that live in the fireplace, stalking noiselessly as he listened to them move about below the chimney When he made his move, dive-bombing down, he trapped himself for days.

While Attenborough doesn’t film any owls on coffee tables, he does wander the seven continents spying on his subjects and occasionally interfering in their busy lives. He riles a New Zealand saddleback by playing a tape of a hostile neighbor’s challenge, only switching off the tape when the feisty victim is thoroughly confused and agitated. Sometimes he can’t resist helping. The Japanese shearwater can’t take off from the ground–it has to climb a tree and launch itself from a high branch. Attenborough, clearly exhilarated by the stream of shearwaters clambering past him up the think, gives one a friendly boost. And only he could sit next to a pair of mating albatrosses and maintain his dignity.

In “Signals and Songs” and “Finding Partners,” the sixth and seventh episodes, birds try to impress each other with acrobatics, inflatable neck sacs, fancy tail feathers, even courtship beak whacking. The lyrebird of Australia, however, steals the show. The male with the most songs gets the best mates, so to increase his repertoire, he samples tunes from his neighbors. When the hapless fellow in this segment attracts nothing but female cuckoos, he resorts to more creative sounds, such as the screech of a chain saw, the howl of a car alarm, and the click and whir of a camera with automatic rewind. The sounds are uncanny; and though we don’t see him win a female lyrebird, he may have a bright future on the talk-show circuit.

Not only does Attenborough show how birds take off, navigate, fly; land, sing, mate, and fight, but he also provides their evolutionary history Graceful animated segments in which fossilized bones come to life, acquiring first height, then breadth, and finally scales and feathers, illustrate the link between today’s birds and yesterday’s dinosaurs. Another segment reveals the artistry of feathers–each filament hooks to its neighbor, and if one comes loose, the bird uses its beak to cinch it back like a zipper, keeping the feather intact so it can beat the air. More animation shows songbirds splitting the air as it streams from their lungs, allowing them to sing two notes at once. Although Attenborough covers hundreds of birds (and bird attributes), it’s clear there is much more to learn. And after only one episode, you may never look into the sky again without hoping one of them will skim past, minding its own fascinating business.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group