"Life of Birds by David Attenborough," a 10-part miniseries from the BBC's peerless natural history unit, takes flight tonight at 8 on Channel 26, and it is a jewel.
Attenborough clearly relishes the ingenious strategies birds have perfected for survival, and he relates them with contagious delight. Even inveterate birders will be surprised by a few of them.
For example, in Japan there is a kind of crow that likes nuts. The nuts are tough, so the crow has learned to drop them from great heights onto hard surfaces. But that doesn't always work. The crows have hit on the additional refinement of dropping them into busy streets so that passing cars pulverize the shells. Still, picking through the crumbled remains on a busy street is dicey. And so the crows have gone one step further: They have learned to drop the nuts onto crosswalks. Cars mash them, and when the light changes, the cars stop, and the crow flutters down and feasts among the pedestrians until the light turns green.
That is the kind of marvel that sets this nature special apart. The backside of cable is choked with guys in safari shorts bulldogging muddy crocodiles and scooping up plump rattlesnakes. Why? Advertisers know male viewers love such fare, no matter how cheesy. After enduring enough episodes of "Entrails of the Serengeti" or the like, it is easy to forget how good nature programming can be.
This BBC offering is a reminder.
Attenborough, the writer and host of the show, has been working on nature documentaries for the BBC for 45 years. His 1979 series "Life on Earth" is still one of the best things the BBC has ever done. You couldn't ask for a better narrator or a better writer. His prose is like a perfectly trimmed English hedge, everything in place, each phrase concise, each word precisely the right one. There is none of the windy yammering that sometimes mars Ken Burns's recent documentaries.
And, rarity of rarities, Attenborough is a man who knows when to stop talking.
In this series, the pictures are so good that the best narration is minimal narration. The BBC spent three years and $12 million (double the budget of a typical TV movie) on the project. Most important, it employed 48 camera people, including some of the best in the business.
Throughout the series, they have delivered remarkable shots of birds. There is exquisite footage of the peregrine falcon's 200 mph aerial attacks, of an eagle descending on a cloud of flamingos, of the depredations of carnivorous parrots. There are even night-vision shots of the kiwi, a flightless, nocturnal New Zealand bird that waddles along the forest floor like a fat little man in a fur coat.
"The photographers are the real heroes here," Attenborough says.
The BBC has some of the greatest natural history photographers in the world. They are apparently an odd band of brilliant, quirky specialists. Take, for example, the man sent to film the promiscuity of the dunnock. His name is Barrie Britton. "I mustn't be rude and say he's inarticulate, but he's a very . . . taciturn chap," Attenborough says. "And at school, he decided that all he wanted to do was film birds."
Though the dunnock is a common bird, its sexual gyrations are anything but. Scientists have recently discovered that the females of this species pair up with a dominant male but keep a second partner--a sort of secret lover--on the side. When times are lean, the drab female of this British sparrow may need more than one male to help bring food to her young.
But the senior male tries to avoid having her lay eggs to which he has not contributed. And when she is ready to mate with him, he pecks her underparts, causing her to extrude the fluid deposited by her secret lover in the earlier tryst.
Scientists only recently discovered this behavior, and no one had filmed it. And so Britton was dispatched. He dug a trench so that the camera would be at grass-top level, looking up at the female during mating. Then for three weeks he spent every day concealed in his dugout until he recorded the female dunnock expelling this minuscule droplet from under her tail feathers.
Without Britton's footage, it would be hard to believe that the alpha male knew to do this, that the female put up with it, or that an Englishman would lie in the sun for weeks to prove that they do. The 10 one-hour documentaries air Tuesdays through Sept. 28 (except Aug. 10) at 8 p.m.
CAPTION: Peerless natural history: David Attenborough hosts a 10-part "Life of Birds" starting tonight.
CAPTION: David Attenborough lets the pictures do the talking on "Life of Birds."