When Sir David Attenborough does television, he does it thoroughly. But then he has lots of experience.
Not only does he make elaborate television series on areas of natural history, such as the 13-part "Life on Earth" (1979), "The Living Planet" (1984) and "The Private Life of Plants" (1995), but he also writes the books that accompany those works.
After digesting all that, there's nothing much he -- and you -- won't know about a subject he's tackled.
Attenborough's "The Life of Birds," a 10-part BBC series beginning Tuesday at 8 on PBS stations, is an excellent example of his approach. His goal: "I hope this series will enable people to get inside the mind of a bird."
Attenborough said the series was a hit in England, outdrawing the soccer game airing on a competing network. And the accompanying book was the country's top seller, as was the volume on plants.
But he agreed that the British, compared with many of the world's other people, are probably more interested in birds.
"We are much more urbanized than you are," he said in a telephone interview. "We don't have Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon. We are very urbanized, and countryside is precious to us."
With nearly a half-century of natural history filmmaking behind him, beginning in 1952 and including stints as controller of BBC-2, when he introduced color television in Britain, and director of programs for both BBC networks, Attenborough has earned the acclaim he gets. He seems not to have slowed down when producing "The Life of Birds."
In addition to writing the script for the series and hosting it, he visited all seven continents, flying 250,000 miles in 70 filming trips to 42 countries. Four dozen camera people helped him record footage of more than 9,000 species of birds. The project took more than three years and $12 million and used computerized imagery, night-vision cameras, micro-cameras and ultra-slow-motion photography.
In this week's installment, "To Fly or Not to Fly," computer animation recreates prehistoric birds, using impressions left by fossels and bones. In the second, "The Mastery of Flight," stop-action enables a viewer to get close to a hummingbird in flight and observe how its tiny wings make a figure-eight pattern. In another installment, a night-vision camera allows us to see a rare New Zealand kiwi.
Other episodes take up birds' eating behavior (consider the variety of bill shapes, the amount of fuel birds need to consume for long flights and what they eat -- some are carnivores); the signals and songs they use for communication; procreation, including mating, laying and caring for eggs and then bringing up their babies; and the battles they must wage for survival against natural disasters and human-created challenges.
By any measure, this series is an achievement.
For Attenborough, 70, it appears to have been a bit of a personal feat as well. There he is, in rumpled khakis, climbing hills, walking high ridges, foraging through forests and jungles. But he refuses to be impressed. "I don't think it's physically demanding," he said.
For a man who has been making natural history and wildlife films for the BBC since shortly after he studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, he remains enthusiastic on film, speaking earnestly, even excitedly to the camera.
"The natural world does excite me," he said. "There are a lot of birders in the world whose primary interest is identifying birds and who get a real buzz from that. I can't pretend that I'm particularly good at that. What interests me about birds is saying, `Let's look at this for some length of time and then try to figure out why it's doing something, how it communicates.' "
There are a few moments, very few, that may give American viewers pause. When Attenborough is discussing robins, for example, the bird on the screen is not the orange-breasted thrush we'd expect, but a bird with a yellow streak down its frontside.
That is because of the indiscriminate use of the word "robin," rather than the Latin Turdus migratorius of North American or the Erithacus rubecula of Europe, he said. "When people landed on Plymouth Rock, they just said, `Oh, there's a robin.' "
Yet his series, made for a general audience, does not use the Linnaean designations that truly differentiate the species and subspecies. And perhaps we're just as glad it doesn't.
This series, instead, is a global trek that presents some of God's most colorful creatures in their natural environments. There is much to see and much to learn through Attenborough's journeys. One of the most interesting takes him to New Zealand, which was a bird paradise with none of their natural enemies -- until humans arrived with cats and weasels, taking their toll on the island's avian residents.
Attenborough acknowledges that "there are a number of birds hovering on the brink of extinction, but I have to say that no important bird species have been lost totally within my generation. People care for birds. That's the reason they haven't been lost."
Birders, of course, will be fascinated by this expansive series. But there may be proportionately fewer Americans who are thrilled by our feathered friends than in Britain. So what would Attenborough say to a channel surfer looking for a show?
"Watch this series and I'll guarantee that at the end of ten hours, you'll never look at birds in the same way again," he said. "I'll guarantee that you will understand birds."
Take him up on it. Then go outside and look up.
CAPTION: Filmmaker David Attenborough tries to get inside the head
of a winged friend.