REVIEW: The Life of Birds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1999:

The Life of Birds
Five-volume video series
hosted by David Attenborough
BBC production, distributed by
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
10 hours. $89.98.

Two hours of The Life of Birds cover the
evolution of flight, three examine avian diet, one
focuses on communication, single hours look at
mating, nesting, and parenting, and the last hour
discusses adaptation to hostile environments.
The cinematography may be matched,
but is unlikely to ever be exceeded for drama and
variety, in part because The Life of Birds includes
many rare looks at species seldom seen, native to
the most remote corners of the world, and perhaps
soon to vanish, victims of habitat loss. As the press
materials boast, Attenborough’s crews took ultraslow-motion,
night vision, and micro-mini cameras
to 42 nations, flying 250,000 miles to capture
the most memorable possible shots of more than
300 species, at total cost of $12 million.


Many of us might be equally fascinated
had the same equipment and effort been expended
on just the 300-odd species who visit the Keoladeo
refuge at Bharatpur, India, or the 150-odd found
near the Tambopata Research Station in the
Peruvian Amazon. The novelty of Attenborough’s
presentation is not so much that many of the
species are unfamiliar, but rather that even footage
of highly familiar species shows activity that is
rarely easily or clearly seen––and in some cases
was not known to occur until quite recently.
The BBC wasn’t taking any chances,
however, that non-birdwatchers might be deterred
by too long a focus on any one subject or location.
Perhaps only birdwatchers will buy the whole 10
hours for home viewing, but the original edition
was produced for prime time television. That
meant attention to entertainment value, as well as
science. Neither gets short shrift. Attenborough
shows that is is possible to make an entertaining
nature series without dwelling excessively on hunting
and killing, though two episodes are primarily
about predation, and that it is also possible to interject
a bit of humor without resorting to jokes at an
animal’s expense.
There is a weak aspect of Attenborough’s
narrative, yet it isn’t his fault. The Life of
Birds had scarcely been assembled when new paleontological,
genetic, and behavioral discoveries
made much of Attenborough’s evolutionary presentation
obsolete. Indeed, there may not be any book
or video on bird evolution produced during the past
20 years that wasn’t at least partially outdated by
the time it reached stores, so rapidly have
advances in human knowledge of the topic come.
As of this writing, the most recent fossil
finds reinforce a theory that Attenborough never
mentions, that birds may have evolved at several
different times and places from a common ancestral
line, and that the first “modern” birds emerged
well before Archaeoptrix, though descendants of
Archaeoptrix may also still be with us.
Attenborough never mentions that possibility
because, just a few years ago, fossil finds of
import now superseded seemed to have shown that
all birds descended more-or-less directly from therapod
dinosaurs. Just a handful of people held out
for an earlier descent, and almost no one thought
multiple emergences possible.
More finds will no doubt revise the
details of the leading theories about how birds
evolved many more times while The Life of Birds is
in distribution. This will not detract from the intimacy
of the night images of kiwis foraging like
mice on a New Zealand beach; the infared photography
revealing how birds appear to each other; or
the poignancy of the hurt bewilderment seen on the
faces of the losers after parents make harsh choices
as to which siblings shall survive and be fed.
Viewers of a spiritual inclination may wonder how
a God capable of creating creatures as wonderful in
so many ways as birds could also permit such cruelty
to be “normal.”
Attenborough doesn’t delve into that
question. Someone should. Whether or not
humans have a unique capacity for deliberate cruelty,
it seems we do have a unique capacity for recognizing
it as such, and for not only avoiding it
but––often––condemning it.
“Killer Ape” theory holds that humans
established primacy because we proved exceptionally
skillful at developing weapons and murdering
our rivals. Yet, tens of millions of years before
our own most distant ancestors evolved recognizably
more intelligence than a tree shrew, many
birds of intellect comparable to all but the most
advanced apes were plentiful––and stalled, never
making the leaps to recording knowledge and
developing technology that permit a culture to
become a civilization.
From a humane perspective, the human
moral sense––including empathy, especially––
often seems horrifically underdeveloped and underutilized.
Yet, weak though it may be, perhaps the
capacity for empathy is essential to developing civilization,
and is only just beginning to emerge.
And the capacity for empathy may be more easily
evolved in mammals, for some reason, than in
either birds or any other order. Weak though our
empathic quality may seem, it might still have
given us a decisive developmental edge over birds,
who beat us to opposable digits, toolmaking ability,
and bipedal stance by many millions of years.
Among birds, we may see mirrors of
our own greatest achievements in communication,
navigation, architecture, and flight. Birds, however,
lacking the ability to record knowledge in
any form of “external memory,” may internalize
and hardwire their technology, at expense of
developing the head space to think much in the
abstract about right and wrong.
We, perhaps, are allowed by evolution
to have become as mighty a species as we are, to
the verge of even becoming able to manipulate
evolutionary processes, because we have the
capacity to develop among us the occasional
Rachel Carson. Our continued ability to thrive and
evolve may depend most of all on our ability to
recognize and develop our empathic qualities,
without which our inventiveness could leave us,
too, at an eventual dead end.
Watch The Life of Birds and mull it over.

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