Happily for us, Attenborough cries fowl on PBS

TV preview

July 20, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

There are nature programs. And then there's David Attenborough.

No one makes a better tour guide to the Earth and its creatures than this renowned (and knighted) British naturalist. Beginning with 1979's 13-part "Life On Earth" series, he's brought the animal and plant kingdoms into our living rooms in ways both educational and entertaining.

Continued proof is offered in "The Life of Birds," a 10-part series debuting at 8 tonight on MPT, Channels 22 and 67.

As with Attenborough's previous series, including "The Living Planet," "The Trials of Life" and "The Private Life of Plants," this look at the world's fowl hits just about every mark.

It's beautiful to look at, featuring photography that's testimony to both technology (some of these cameras must be attached to the birds' beaks, so great is the detail) and patience. Wild animals rarely perform on cue, which means wildlife photographers spend a lot of hours waiting for them to do something photogenic. But when those moments come -- for example, the footage of a South African falcon swooping down on a sparrow that opens episode four, "Meat Eaters" -- the results are nothing short of awe-inspiring.

But as good as his photographers are, it's Attenborough's presence as host and writer that makes his series truly extraordinary.

Like any good storyteller, Attenborough, who's been honing his craft at the BBC since 1952, displays a clear passion for his subject. With a calm, melodious voice that occasionally betrays a sort of gee-whiz wonder, he makes an awfully engaging tour guide.

But most important, he knows when to take himself off-camera, to step back and let the birds steal the show.

The range of creatures featured on the series is stunning. There are the amazing hummingbirds, marvels of natural design that can hover in one place seemingly motionless, the only movement the beating of their wings. There are the majestic eagles, which soar as if they own the skies.

There's the great horned owl, with hearing so acute it can hear a lemming rustling beneath the snow, and the buzzard that can spot a rabbit a mile away.

There's the New Caledonian crow, which uses a twig to extract a beetle grub the size of its head from a rotting log. There's the sapsucker, pecking away at trees and leaving behind intricate patterns that would do a draftsman proud.

There's even the ingenious geese, which get around the problem of a diet extremely low on nutrition by eating almost constantly and, as Attenborough so delicately puts it, pooping almost immediately. It's the only way they can make room inside themselves for all the food they have to eat.

So many birds, and only 10 hours in the next 11 weeks to meet them all.

"The Life of Birds" kicks off tonight with "To Fly Or Not To Fly," which looks at how birds evolved from dinosaurs. And, their reputations to the contrary, not all birds fly.

Airing through September, the series continues with:

"The Mastery of Flight" (July 27), which tries to explain just how birds fly. It also looks at the ways they do it, from the soaring albatrosses to the dive-bombing peregrine falcons.

"The Insatiable Appetite" (Aug. 3) deals with a bird's main concern: eating.

After a week off, the series returns with "Meat Eaters" (Aug. 17) which examines predators and birds of prey. "Fishing for a Living" (Aug. 24) looks at birds that live off the bounty of Earth's waters.

"Signals and Songs" (Aug. 31) should most appeal to all the bird watchers out there, as Attenborough introduces us the wide variety of voices and costumes displayed by the world's feathered inhabitants.

Procreation is the subject of "Finding Partners" (Sept. 7), which shows the length to which a male bird will go to find a mate. What happens when a mother and father bird start making babies is examined in "The Demands of the Egg" (Sept. 14) and "The Problems of Parenthood" (Sept. 21).

The series concludes Sept. 28 with "The Limits of Endurance," as birds seek to maintain a peaceful co-existence with humans, despite the latter's penchant for changing the planet to suit their every whim.

`The Life of Birds'

What: 10-part documentary series

Where: PBS (MPT, Channels 22 and 67)

When: 8-9 tonight and following Tuesdays

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