In New Zealand, Attenborough observes keas , parrots that do not eat meat exclusively, raiding a shearwater's burrow for a chick. However, it is the dedicated birds of prey , such as owls , buzzards , eagles , falcons and vultures , to which much of the programme is devoted.
The secret life of birds : who they are and what they do
In order to spot and pursue their victims, senses of sight and hearing are very acute. Vultures are the exception, in that they eat what others have left, and once a carcass is found, so many birds descend on it that the carrion seems submerged beneath them.
The turkey vulture is an anomaly within its group, as it also has a keen sense of smell. Eagles defend their territory vigorously, and a pair of sea eagles are shown engaging in an aerial battle. The African harrier-hawk has adapted to extracting burrowing animals by virtue of an especially long, double-jointed pair of legs.
By contrast, a shrike is not equipped with the requisite sharp beak and talons needed for butchery, and so dismembers its kill by impaling it on the thorns of acacias. The lammergeier eats bones, and will drop them on to rocks from a great height in order to break them down to a digestible size.
Also featured are the Eurasian sparrowhawk , goshawk and peregrine falcon. Broadcast 18 November , the next programme details river and ocean dwellers. The dipper swims completely below water to search for food, whereas the kingfisher uses a 'harpoon' technique, diving from a vantage point.
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However, the darter uses a combination of both methods, stalking its prey underwater before spearing it. By contrast, the reddish egret uses a kind of dance to flush out the aquatic inhabitants. Skimmers have different-sized mandibles, the lower one being used to skim the water's surface for small fish.
Ducks have developed an assortment of angling skills. Some dabble, like the mallard , while others are of a more streamlined design and are at home underwater, such as the merganser. Waders , which specialise in feeding on mud flats at low tide, include avocets , godwits , dowitchers and sanderlings. The pelican feeds in groups, their pouch-like bills being more successful when used collectively. Boobies fish in the open ocean and are shown dive-bombing shoals en masse. Attenborough visits Lord Howe Island , off Australia, and by imitating the calls of various birds, invites a group of curious Providence petrels — which are indigenous — to investigate.
Because there are no humans in their habitat, they are a very trusting species, as Attenborough discovers when one perches on his hand. Out on a seemingly empty area of ocean, the presenter is able to fill it with various sea birds within seconds, simply by throwing fish oil on to the water.
Broadcast 25 November , this installment describes ways of communicating.
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A colony of fieldfares in Sweden deters a raven from raiding a nest by collectively raising an audible alarm. However, in an English wood, all species co-operate to warn each other surreptitiously of approaching danger. By contrast, a sunbittern is shown expanding its plumage to discourage a group of marauding hawks. The members of the finch family exemplify how colour aids recognition. Birds have excellent colour vision, and the feathers of many species react to ultraviolet light.
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Flocking birds, such as sparrows , also have a 'ranking system' that determines seniority. In Patagonia , Attenborough demonstrates the effectiveness of sound: he summons a Magellanic woodpecker by knocking on a tree. The nature of tropical rainforests means that their occupants tend to make much louder calls than those in other habitats, and several such species are shown. Saddlebacks vary their calls so that even individuals from different areas can be identified. The dawn chorus provides a mystery, as there is still much to learn about why so many different birds sing together at the same time of day.
Proclaiming territory or attracting mates are two likely reasons. Finally, Attenborough introduces the superb lyrebird as one of the most versatile performers: it is a skilled mimic, and this particular one imitates not only other species, but also cameras, a car alarm and a chain saw. Broadcast 2 December , this programme discusses mating rituals. If a male bird is on the lookout for a partner and has a suitable nest, it must advertise the fact, either by its call, a visual display or both.
The frigatebird provides an example of the latter, with its inflated throat pouch. The hornbill 's courtship, among that of many others, also runs to the offer of a gift. For some species, dancing can also be an important component, and grebes are shown performing a pas de deux. The cock-of-the-rock , which dances solo within a group, is contrasted with the team performance of the manakin.
Once trust has been established between a pair, mutual preening can follow. After mating, the individuals usually remain together to rear their eventual family. The Temminck's Tragopan with its beautiful and colorful neck, the Himalayan Monal with glowing feather's colors and the huge tailed great argus to the peacock with its colorful and huge tail. In this regard, the rhea and the phalarope are highlighted as unusual because in both instances, it is the male that incubates the eggs. Some females judge a prospective companion on its nest-building ability, and this is a conspicuous part of the weaver 's behaviour.
The bowerbird puts on one of the most elaborate displays: a hut-like construction, completed by a collection of objects designed to impress. Competition among males can be fierce and in Scotland, Attenborough observes rival capercaillies engaging in battle — after one of them chases the presenter. Avian polyandry is not widespread, but is illustrated by the superb fairy-wren , where the male's family can easily comprise young that it did not father. Broadcast 9 December , this episode explores the lengths to which birds will go to ensure that their chicks are brought into the world.
Attenborough begins on an island in the Seychelles , where sooty terns , which have hitherto spent their lives on the wing, have landed to lay their eggs.
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This is a necessity for birds, as eggs are too heavy to be borne in the air for any considerable length of time. It is imperative that nests are kept as far away from predators as possible, and unusual locations for them are shown, such as: behind the water curtain of Iguazu Falls in South America as chosen by swifts , cliffs on Argentina 's coast favoured by parrots, an ants' nest occupied by a woodpecker, and a tree hole inside which a female hornbill seals itself. Eggs require warmth, and some nests are insulated by the owners' feathers, others from ones found elsewhere.
External temperatures dictate how the eggs are incubated. The snowy owl has to do so itself, because of its habitat; however, the maleo is able to take advantage of solar heating. The amount of eggs laid also varies: for example, the kiwi lays just one, whereas the blue tit will deposit many. Their mottled surface serves to camouflage them. Birds that steal eggs include toucans and currawongs. A number of strategies are employed to deter the thieves, as illustrated by the yellow-rumped thornbill , which builds a decoy nest atop its actual one, and the plover , which distracts marauders by feigning injury.
Broadcast 16 December , the penultimate installment concentrates on the ways in which birds rear their offspring. Having successfully incubated their eggs, the moment arrives when they hatch — and then the real challenge begins: feeding the chicks. Lapland buntings and dippers are shown doing so virtually non-stop throughout the day. The Gouldian finch has a further problem in that its tree-hollow nest is dark inside, so its young have conspicuous markings inside their mouths for identification.
Grebes are fed feathers with which to line the stomach, and so protect it from fish bones. Coots and pelicans are among those that turn on their own and force death by starvation if there is insufficient food. The European cuckoo tricks other species into raising its chick, but it is by no means alone in doing this. Protecting a family is also a priority, and brent geese are shown nesting close to snowy owls as a means of insurance, but as soon as the eggs hatch, they and their young must flee to avoid giving their neighbours an easy meal.
The million or so sooty terns in the Seychelles prove that there is safety in numbers and the nearby predatory egrets have little success when attempting to steal. The behaviour of Arabian babblers is more akin to that of a troop of monkeys : they do everything for the benefit of a group as a whole.
Eventually the day will come when flight beckons, and the grown bird will leave the nest to start a family of its own. Broadcast 23 December , the final programme investigates the challenges that must be surmounted if birds are to survive.
The sandgrouse is a species that has adapted to desert living: its breast feathers are capable of absorbing water, which it can pass on to its young. The crab plover also nests in the sand, and burrows until it finds a comfortable temperature. Birds that choose remote places can proliferate hugely, like the flamingos on an African soda lake. Meanwhile, during winter, the entire world population of spectacled eiders can be found in just a few assemblies on patches of the Arctic Ocean.
In Japan, crows have learned to crack nuts by dropping them on to pedestrian crossings — and waiting for the traffic to stop before collecting them. In North America , purple martins have become totally dependent on humans for their nest sites. Attenborough highlights man's influence by describing the Pacific island of Guam , whose bird population was wiped out following the accidental introduction of brown tree snakes during the s.
Examples of species that were hunted to extinction are the huia , the great auk and, most famously, the dodo. However, there are conservation efforts being made, such as those for Australia's orange-bellied parrot , the pink pigeon and the echo parakeet the latter two both of Mauritius. Birds were flying from continent to continent long before we were. They reached the coldest place on Earth, Antarctica, long before we did. They can do almost everything that mammals can do - and more. By mastering flight, they have a way of living that encompasses the whole world.
From the secrets of migration to their complicated family lives, their differing habitats and survival techniques to the secrets of flight, this is a fascinating account of how birds live, why they matter, and whether they really are dinosaurs. Colin Tudge shows how birds - who are like us in the general sense but very different in the particulars - live and think. For birds have minds: they feel, they are aware, they work things out.