Brushes with avian friends

The Life of Birds
December 18, 1998

David Attenborough has brought some of the most enduring images of natural history into the nation's living rooms with television blockbusters such as Trials of Life and The Living Planet. Familiar romping with mountain gorillas, strolling on a beach surrounded by 3,600 kilogram bull elephant seals, or watching from a distance as killer whales pluck sealions from the surf, his sotto voce commentary has become a trade mark, while he has become one of the world's leading exponents of the popularisation of science.

His television work, divided into two periods by a spell in BBC management as controller of BBC2, began with the Zoo Quest series. Zoo Quest marked the beginning of a transition from the unstructured presentation of visual curiosities, which had characterised natural history programmes on early television, to a use of film as a way of explaining the diversity of life forms and their interrelationships in a fundamentally scientific way.

The Life of Birds extends this philosophy to his first study of a single group of animals - a detailed look at the origin of birds, the variety of ways in which they have evolved, and their complex reproductive and feeding strategies - which took three years to make.

Inevitably, the driving force behind the series is the imagery. Birds are an attractive television subject - often brightly coloured, often found in dramatic surroundings, and, for most viewers, combining familiarity with a sense of enigma.

But behind the stunning film footage - and the 300 or so photographs in the book - Attenborough has drawn on hard science to describe what birds do and why.

He candidly admits that barely a page of the book could have been written without access to a vast body of raw data assembled by professional scientists, aided in no small measure by countless amateur enthusiasts who have taken part in migration studies and ringing programmes over the decades.

From the moment that Audubon attached coloured threads to the legs of migrant flycatchers in Pennsylvania, the scientific study of birds became a relentless process of accumulating data. The threads gave way to metal rings bearing unique numbers that could be referenced for age, place of trapping, and other biological details, to the development of radio transmitters and the use of genetic fingerprinting to unravel the complex interrelationships between species.

The Life of Birds traces the origins of birds and some of the features that they share, more or less uniquely, such as the power of flight, reproduction with an external egg, plumage and song. There are many scientific gems - the complex courtship behaviour of dunnocks, the majesty of albatrosses, the adaptation of species to commensal relationships with man. But in examining the significance of Archaeopteryx, the primitive birds known from fossil specimens found in Bavaria towards the end of the last century, Attenborough discusses how its ancestors evolved without specifically mentioning Protarchaeopteryx robusta, the feathered but probably flightless birds whose fossils were found near Liaoning, China, in 1997.

However dramatic, unlikely or winsome, every example is based on meticulous attention to documented scientific research. But the book gives no references, for the understandable reason that they would clog a text designed for a popular readership. While any biologist would be able to track down the publications supporting each example, many of which are well known, some clues for less scientifically literate readers would have been helpful.

The absence of references makes the book useless as anything other than as supplementary reading. But this is a forgivable flaw in a book which is replete with thought-provoking insights into avian behaviour, and which is unequivocally a straightforward spin-off from a multi-million pound television series.

Possibly the most enduring image from the new series is of a species which does not feature in the book, the capercaillie. The frames of David Attenborough being pursued through a Scottish pine forest by this bird the size of a turkey are hilarious.

David Jobbins is foreign editor, The THES.

The Life of Birds

Author - David Attenborough
ISBN - 0 563 38792 0
Publisher - BBC Books
Price - £18.99
Pages - 320

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