Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Life of Birds

One of the problems with not owning a TV is that I am probably the last person on the planet to see most programs, but thanks to one of my readers who shall remain anonymous here, I now have seen the entire 10-episode series, The Life of Birds on DVD by David Attenborough (British Broadcasting Corporation; 1998). In short, this 550 minute-series is superbly done; it is educational, entertaining and awe-inspiring, and it relies on spectacular footage that leaves the viewer asking “how on earth did they get that on film?”

Each disc contains three or four episodes from the series. The series focuses on avian behavior and is divided into ten 55-minute episodes that cover specific aspects of a bird’s life, ranging from migration to breeding and chick rearing;

Episode One: To Fly or Not to Fly: focuses on the origin of flight, using computer animated sequences that reveal and explain the two competing hypotheses regarding how birds evolved flight; the “ground up” and the “trees down” hypotheses. This episode also reviews avian evolution from the time of archaeopteryx. Includes great footage of birds hunting insects and bats, including bee eaters, kiwis, red-tailed hawks and prairie falcons.

Episode Two: The Mastery of Flight: Presents an in-depth analysis of the anatomy of flight especially skeletal modifications and microscopic views of feather structure. It also provides a great explanation of how a bird’s wing provides lift, although I think they should have includes a graphic explanation along with the verbal for those who are visual learners. This episode features albatrosses, pelicans, hummingbirds, and snow geese. There’s a great scene where an osprey grabs a trout from the water and turns it head first in mid-flight to reduce drag.

Episode Three: The Insatiable Appetite: Flying requires a lot of energy so this episode focuses on the constant search for food and the different adaptations that birds have evolved to accomplish this task. This episode features woodpeckers, sapsuckers, geese, hornbills, crows, robins and macaws. As a lory owner, breeder and researcher, I was especially pleased with a scene where rainbow lorikeets are lapping up sugar water from a clear glass dish like cats, using their fuzzy tongues. I was also amazed by a scene of a hummingbird entering overnight torpor in a small hole in a cliff face. How did they find this particular bird to get it on film?

Episode Four: The Meat Eaters: Focuses almost exclusively on raptors, such as owls, eagles, hawks and kestrels, but also includes footage of shrikes, vultures and flamingos. There are some amazing flight scenes of hunting birds, particularly a hunting peregrine falcon and kestrel in this episode. Also impressive was the footage of two dueling sea eagles.

Episode Five: Fishing For a Living: This episode features dippers, skimmers, kingfishers, ducks, gulls, cormorants, snakebirds, loons, herons, cranes, albatrosses and shore birds that demonstrate the many ways that birds have evolved to catch aquatic life. There is some footage of herons swallowing fish that appear to be way to big for them and the viewer can watch the fish going down the bird’s throat.

Episode Six: Signals and Songs: A close look at the reasons for, and methods of avian communication. Includes wonderful footage of Scandinavian fieldfares mobbing a raven and a pair of magellanic woodpeckers coming in to investigate a potential rival — Attenborough tapping on a tree trunk. I was charmed by the endangered Kagu’s behavior and impressed by the lyrebird’s songs. This segment features European robins, blackbirds, finches, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, bell birds, lyrebirds and toucans.

Episode Seven: Finding Partners: Deals with how birds court and win mates. Includes footage of Jamaican streamer-tailed hummingbirds, red-headed weavers, pheasants, a Scottish grouse that nearly attacks Attenborough, and hedge sparrows. It has beautiful footage of “dancing” grebes and some stunning never-before-seen footage of calfbirds making their distinctive mooing courtship calls 100 feet off the ground in a South American jungle.

Episode Eight: The Demands of the Egg: Birds go to extraordinary lengths to protect their nests and eggs, and to keep them warm. To meet these challenges, they have evolved the fine arts of weaving, pottery making, camouflage and deception. This episode features terns, dippers, frigate birds, warblers, weaver birds, red-breasted toucan, cuckoos, and imperial pigeons. One great scene is an egg-eye view of incubation, showing a bird’s naked brood patch used to transfer heat to the eggs.

Episode nine: The Problems of Parenthood: Takes a closer look at the demands made on parent birds to keep themselves and their rapidly growing offspring fed. The young bird footage is great. Features Australian Rosella parrots, coots, cuckoos, Andean torrent ducks, red geese, Arabian babblers, and open billed storks. An amazing scene shows swifts flying through a curtain of falling water to feed their chicks in a nest behind a waterfall.

Episode Ten: The Limits of Endurance: Focuses on birds that live in extreme environments, such as the Antarctic, and also those birds that co-exist with people. This episode also discusses conservation efforts, as well as a presenting a brief overview of birds that have gone extinct in the last hundred years or so. Features penguins, sand grouse, crab plovers, Arctic gulls, vultures, city crows, purple martins, and a some endangered bird species.

This is the definitive educational series on birds. The Life of Birds visits 42 countries and examines more than 300 different birds. Utilizing the skills of many of the world’s top wildlife cameramen and women, and pushing filming technology to new limits, bird behavior is now revealed in detail. It shows beautiful slow-motion footage of a mallard drake in midflight. Infra-red cameras capture oilbirds deep in dark caves. It includes intimate details of New Caledonian crows using tools to gather food. Footage of a lyrebird imitating the sound of a chainsaw with astonishing accuracy.

According to my sources, The Life of Birds took three years to make at a cost of $15 million. Sir David Attenborough travelled 256,000 miles during filming — 10 times round the Earth. The production employed 48 cameramen and camerawomen and they used 200 miles of film to capture 300 bird subjects to bring this amazing masterpiece to the screen for all to learn from and enjoy. Whether you are a naturalist, a birder or a professor of ornithology, If you haven’t already purchased this DVD, I highly recommend this series: you will not be disappointed.

Comments

  1. #1 Tabor
    February 27, 2007

    I saw much of it on TV and then rented the DVD’s for the rest.

  2. #2 Diane in Ohio
    February 27, 2007

    What an awesome collection for you! I happen to catch abit of that on PBS this last fall while multi-tasking on-line working and listening to the t.v..(with only football playing on a sunday :o/,not big on sports.). His voice is mesmerising. Would luv to see it all- gonna check the library…

  3. #3 Richard
    February 27, 2007

    Attenborough’s “The Private Life of Plants” is amazing as well. He’s the master of the genre, and obviously knows how to get funding.

  4. #4 Chris' Wills
    February 27, 2007

    Being David Attenborough’s understudy would be a dream job.

    Sadly I’ve neither the charisma nor technical knowledge :o(

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    February 28, 2007

    I chatted to a guy a few years ago (damn, forgotten his name!) who works/worked with woodpeckers. He had been involved with either this or another BBC Natural History Unit production, and explained that at one point they wanted a shot of a woodpecker leaving a hole in a tree. So they got some bark, drilled a hole in it, and then got this guy’s pet woodpecker, and stuffed it through the hole, with the camera running.

    I’m guessing the hummingbird was also a pet, and they read it that year’s EU legislation.

    Bob

  6. #6 Scott
    February 28, 2007

    Be sure to check out David Attenborough’s “Planet Earth” due out on DVD in the US in April. Filmed in HiDef, a survey of all life. I’ve not seen it yet, but “Birds” and “Mammals” suggest it will be a gotta-have.

  7. #7 cma
    March 1, 2007

    Bowerbirds. Oh. Wow.

  8. #8 The Ridger
    March 8, 2007

    Welcome to I and the Bird #44 – Science and Serendipity, Words and Pictures

    http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com/2007/03/i-and-bird-44.html

  9. #9 Cindy
    March 9, 2007

    since this wonderful look into the lives of birds has been out so long I was surprised to see this post on it.. I doubt that anyone who truly loves birds hasn’t seen it. Glad you finally had the chance to indulge in the great photography and the intriguing natural history of this classic documentary. It remains to this day my favorite series, and ALL of his are well worth viewing.

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