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Birds Aloft
The Life of Birds BBC/Fox Home

Entertainment, $89.98; (818) 985-8585
The shimmering hummingbird darting among blossoms and the grim vulture circling a carcass have something in common: a superb ability to adapt to a specific ecological niche. (Taking to the air in the first place was an early sign of genius.) This adaptability, in its endless complexity, is marvelously shown in Sir David Attenborough's exploration of love, death, housekeeping, feeding, and migration in every corner of the avian world.

The five-volume video ranges from New Zealand's nocturnal kiwi, whose shape and gait resemble a foraging opossum, to the oxpecker grooming cattle in the blazing African sun by nibbling lice and savory flakes of dandruff. The shots of bird carpenters are equally impressive. New England's industrious sapsucker carefully carves little wells in branches to collect spring sap. She's rivaled by a paragon of diligent craftsmanship, a woodpecker who chisels holes in dead trees to insert an acorn, carefully hammering it into place with the concentration and skill of a master carpenter. Some of these avian artisans even use tools. To dig out grubs, the Gal‡pagos finch wields a cactus spine in its beak, while the New Caledonian crow prefers a twig.

As for avian courtship, most impressive has to be the grebes, with their long, intimate caresses of neck and beak, followed by rounds of prancing, dancing, and running wing-to-wing along the shore.

It's not all gourmet dining, amour and nectar, of course. The squeamish viewer will fast forward through the birds of prey, especially the ingenious victim's-eye shots, as when the underwater camera shows the kingfisher's beak stab through the water to harpoon an unsuspecting fish. And the spoonbill stork seizing a lungfish from the mud is a savage achievement.

Though scientists might quibble with Attenborough for skimping on discussions of evolution (despite some fine animation of archaeopteryx and pterodactyls swooping over primal seas), the series' range alone makes it a classic chronicle of nature's strange and varied beauty.

- Bob Schildgen

Mixed Media: Books and Web


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