Sparrows in three-in-a-nest romp

Sir David Attenborough's new series makes birds seem as strange and rare as dinosaurs . By Sanjida O'Connell
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The Independent Culture
To fly or not to fly? Half way through the first programme in his new series David Attenborough answers his own question. He says, "If they couldn't fly, they wouldn't last long." Although some of them can't or don't, it's certainly true that birds have lasted, for 150 million years. Three years in the making, The Life of Birds is a ten-part series by Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit, which started this week and continues till Christmas.

The series is what the Natural History Unit does best, and to some extent is a return to form for Attenborough. The first programme is the story of how birds evolved, and there is a remarkable moment when Attenborough, perched on a quarry in central Germany, tells of a time when horses were the size of spaniels, and birds had beaks as big as a man's hand. He places a huge fossilised beak in the earth, the ground slides beneath his feet, and the lump of rock grows the rest of its body. Like a Hollywood B-movie monster, the newly formed skeleton turns towards us and becomes coated in flesh and feathers. It's a terror bird; when it lived it stood 6m tall and weighed 200 kilos.

The reason for the series is simple: "Birds are the commonest wildlife most people come across, but as soon as these birds leave the bird table, we don't know where they go or what they do," says producer Peter Bassett. To me, birds appear as aliens, living lives that run in parallel to ours, with little understanding on either side. They are, as Sir David says, visitors from another world, and throughout the series we are treated to the ever more bizarre and outlandish: from hoatzins with red eyes which ruminate like cows and look like dinosaurs, to birds that feed on the sweet excretions of sap-sucking insects. The series progresses through almost the entire gamut of bird life: flying, feeding, eating and bringing up the babies. There is little directoral finesse, there are no gimmicks; people are but ghostly presences. But what you do get are lush pictures, startlingly unique behaviour, high-quality footage and big orchestral sounds. And of course, David. I'm sure all Attenborough's pieces to camera were not shot in sequence, but at the beginning of the series, perched outside a bat-filled cave in Texas or teetering beside mutant cormorants in the Galapagos, he appears worryingly fragile, although still utterly captivating. As my hairdresser said to me, "He can hold up a little brown bug and tell you how amazing it is, and the amazing thing is, you believe him." Attenborough does become more at ease. "He's a personable man," says series prodcuer Mike Salisbury, "he's thoughtful, kind, amusing, bright, knowledgeable, interesting, funny, and it comes across on screen." Bassett adds, "He's one of those people who live up to your expectations and more."

The Life of Birds is not a technologically dependent series like The Private Life of Plants, although in the first programme there is a sequence shot using a state-of-the-art camera that operates at night using only star-light. Attenborough sits on a beach in New Zealand bathed in a beautiful ultra-violet glow watching a kiwi shuffling through the sand with its snout-like bill searching for sand lice. "Most of the money was spent on getting the best camera-men in the world, going to the best location and spending as much time as possible there," says Bassett. It shows. "To my mind the best thing to do is go to foreign places and use old-fashioned field craft to predict how the animals will behave; you get your sequence and then leave and the animals never knew you were there."

The producers employed local scientists and naturalists to get the birds used to people. One female dummy from Doncaster was dressed up in Attenborough's jumper and hat; another had feeders hanging from its hands so that when replaced by the man himself, the birds fed naturally from his palms. Not all field craft pays off: the camera crew spent three weeks in Nepal trying, unsuccessfully, to film the orange-rumped honey guide. Camera man Nick Gordon contracted malaria, was infested with a fly larvae, and was almost killed when lightning struck the tree he was filming from. His near-death experience brought us the calf bird; a cross between an undertaker and a Franciscan monk; the birds boom a noise strangely reminiscent of a dentist's drill over the Amazon rainforest.

The series is at its most successful when on the one hand we are amazed by the weird and wonderful, and on the other we are drawn into a more empathetic relationship with birds; perhaps unsurprisingly the programme that achieved this best was about sex. Ninety per cent of bird species are monogamous. Allegedly. In "Finding Partners" Attenborough appeals to the Nineties laddette when he suggests, "Females cruise by assessing what's on offer." On grebes he pronounces, "After the dancing, more gift- giving." In the avian world it seems to be a piece of eel or a bit of moss, marginally more endearing than the usual vindaloo. The male streamer tail shows off by waggling his ears at the female. When the deed is done, "She pulls herself together and gets ready to begin life as a single parent."

The series ends with "The Limits of Endurance"; for birds this doesn't just apply to being roasted in the desert or chilled in the Arctic, it means coping with us. Shot in surreal, candy-box colours, we stumble across the tip of what seems to be an iceberg of human weirdness. When purple martins migrate to America, they live in bird-size apartment blocks. The purple martin no longer nests in natural sites, but is dependent on a million US citizens for its accommodation. And in Wisconsin whooping cranes are being saved from extinction by captive breeding. To prevent any perversions where a crane might think it was a person, the staff dress in white; mid- way between a nun and a bee-keeper, they run through the fields flapping their wings in the hope that this will teach a bird where it's true element lies.

Salisbury says he can never look at a bird in the same light again. I could say the same about some of the people. That we find birds more strange, complex and intelligent than most of us would have given them credit for, is a credit to the series, but I couldn't help feeling that we never got inside the mind of a bird; there was no attempt to understood how brains that diverged millions of years ago from ours process the world around them. Similarly the series glossed over the why of birds; it is incredible to find out that female hedge sparrows, drab little brown birds skulking in our gardens, mate with two males - but we aren't told the full story. The males can't recognise their own offspring and so how often they feed the nestlings depends directly on how much sex they had. But perhaps expecting this series to delve deeper is an impossible demand when it has to be all things to all people and please a global market; perhaps what we should be striving for is not an intellectual understanding but an emotional bond with the bird world. Salisbury describes one hair-raising filming trip to a mountainous island near New Zealand which involved being dropped out of a helicopter that could only land one skid on the rocks. He and the camera woman were searching for the rarest bird in the world, the kakapo. There are only 12 fertile females left. Salisbury listened to the mating call of a male: "When I was on top of the mountain next to this kakapo, giving these booming calls, and knowing the whole future of the species lay in his ability to attract a female, I found it a moving experience. I didn't think I could get that emotional about birds."