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David Attenborough’s Life Of Amazing Television

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

You toucan enjoy it!Let’s face it. Nature documentaries are rarely very good. The flagship animals, such as the big cats, bears, the great apes and crocodiles seem to turn up in the majority of television shows on Discovery Channel or Animal Planet.

Usually, these shows string together a bunch of footage, not necessarily all taken by the same crew, or even footage taken for that particular show. A narrative is built, and the cliché is followed: the show about the lion has the gazelle getting killed; the show about the gazelle shows a frustrated lion padding away looking for some other prey to take down. I’m generalizing for sure, but so many nature documentaries are bland and boring. The photography is usually top notch, especially on National Geographic, but the information is limited, and things like environment, adaptation/evolution and how the animal relates to other animals is, for the most part, glossed over.

Enter David Attenborough. And before I go any further, yes, he is Lord Richard’s younger brother.

To be honest, I have only seen a small amount of Attenborough’s prodigious television offerings. This may have something to do with the fact that I’m young (ish), and I live in Canada. Thanks to TVO however, I have been introduced to the world according to Attenborough through two of his incredible series: Life of Birds, and Life of Mammals.

The Life of Birds is an absolutely stunning series. Each of the ten episodes is jam-packed with information and stunning photography and each deals with a different theme, from habitat to nesting to communication. The team decided to focus on birds that aren’t as well known to the general public, which required the production team to find the most inhospitable climates on earth and camping out for days and weeks in order to get the perfect shot.

As Attenborough points out in his introduction, birds were the first ones to settle every continent on earth, and Life of Birds examines birds living in the most extreme climates and conditions, from Antarctica to the Sahara to the Himalayan mountains. The giant coot of the Andes mountains nest all year round at an altitude that would freeze most other birds but they have figured out how to nest in the hot springs and survive the cold. The common poorwill of North America chooses not to migrate, but instead hibernates during the winter by lowering its body temperature and camouflaging itself from predators.Anyone for water polo?

But Attenborough also provides fascinating information on more common and popular birds. Who knew that the flamingo lives in one of the most extreme climates, the soda lakes and salt lagoons of Africa where temperatures can reach up to 60º C? Or that starlings and house sparrows can claim to be the bird most adaptable to living with humans. There’s also a fascinating section on the crows of New Caledonia who use tools (yes, Mr. Beal, tools to take back the Earth) and crows in Japan who have figured out the best way to have your nut cracked and eat it too.

How do you like your eggs?Life of Birds has everything a major network drama has, but you don’t feel guilty for watching it. The gut-wrenching drama of the ancient murrelet chick running to the shore to find its mother, who leaves the eggs before they hatch; the horror of watching young pelicans compete for dominance over the nest, and their parent’s attention. Apparently the Barrows goldeneye of BC will chase away the adults of a rival nest and add the orphaned ducklings to its own group. However (and Attenborough loves to set up these moments, cause let’s face, nature hasn’t yet been Disney-fied), because they’re not hers, she doesn’t have to feed them, so if a predator attacks, her own chicks have a better chance of surviving. The wicked stepmother of the bird-world.

But most of all what makes Life of Birds so engaging is Attenborough himself. This is not to deny all the extraordinary effort put in by the crew, but without Attenborough’s concise, yet beautifully written narration, Life of Birds would be much more like your generic animal docs shown on cable: style and visual flair, without the analysis.

Sir David proves that he is just as good a storyteller as his brother. He makes connections between different birds, and tells their stories with all the heartache and triumph of great drama. His love for the natural world shines through, and his respect for the environment and its fauna is evident. For lack of a better term, he’s old school. He comes from the classical style of television, carrying the kind of intelligent, yet engaging programs the BBC is famous for into the 21st Century. While other nature programs prefer to have the simple story of an animal’s daily life, Attenborough rejoices in the complexity of creatures, and turns that complexity into his story.

If you can find Life of Birds on TV, I urge — nay — demand, that you sit down and watch it. Heck, if you can find any of his programs on TV, first, call me to let me know what time they’re on, watch them, then impress your friends with your new found animal knowledge.

Here’s Sir David with the last word,

There are birds far out on the open sea. Birds go to the poles, and survive extremely low temperatures. Birds go underwater. They have been seen diving to 1000 feet. Birds have colonised the air in a fantastic way. They even fly over the Himalayas. Swifts stay on the wing nearly all their lives, making nests of bits of fluff they catch in the air. They even mate in the air … There is no question that birds are the most widespread and successful kind of organism in the world … Now, we have taken over the earth and the sea and the sky, but with skill and care and knowledge, we can ensure that there is still a place on Earth for birds – in all their beauty and variety … if we want to … and surely, we should.

Eagles are big.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, August 24, 2006 12:00 am

    Anything about birds is automatically good.

  2. Thursday, September 7, 2006 8:43 am

    Okay guys, there was David Attenborough program about sea horses on TVO last night and I only just happened to stumble upon it while channel surfing.

    Where was my phone call, hmmm??

    C’mon people! Geesh. I expect this kind of lazyness on other blogs, but not The Culturatti.

  3. Thursday, September 7, 2006 9:10 am

    Uh, I think I have a pretty good excuse for not knowing about it.

  4. James17930 permalink
    Thursday, September 7, 2006 9:55 am

    I don’t have cable.

    Of course, that means I still get TVO. But I don’t watch TV. Just Buffy and Angel and West Wing on DVD, and one day Lost and Veronica Mars.


  5. Thursday, September 7, 2006 10:08 am

    For the layman: “I don’t watch TV” = “I’m better than you”

  6. Wednesday, April 2, 2008 11:06 am

    I’m hooked on the BBC’s Planet Earth series. It’s probably the greatest nature series I’ve ever seen. It’s also narrated by David Attenborough…long live the king.

  7. Anonymous permalink
    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 10:03 am

    I saw it it was amazing


  1. Joshua

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