Our book today is David Attenborough’s masterpiece, The Life of Birds, and for many readers the temptation here will be to conflate the book with the absolutely heartbreakingly good BBC television mini-series, also by Attenborough, to which this book is the companion. A certain amount of this conflation is unavoidable – the book was written in conjunction with the series, after all. But the book is able to go into far more detail, and reading it is a very different experience than watching the TV show. Both experiences are utterly enchanting, but each has its own distinct enchantment.
To put it mildly, there are lots of bird books out there. There are volumes on bird evolution, history, physiology, cognition, and ecological survival. The Life of Birds touches on all of those things, but if it’s the single greatest bird book ever written (I contend it is), that’s not the reason. Rather, the reason is the entirely unselfconscious way it exults in birds, in the whole world of them. Attenborough has always had a soft spot for birds as a subject matter, and he’s famously trekked all over the world to look at, whisper to, and marvel about virtually every kind of bird on the planet. His most charming habit is his immediate identification with his charges in all their infinite variety:
The sun bittern uses visual signals. It builds its nest in swampy regions of the South American rain forest. When it is sitting, it is difficult to detect for its brown plumage, barred with thin wavy stripes of grey, white, and olive, blends in closely with its background. But if you do see it and walk slowly towards it, the bird, most unexpectedly, will fan its tail and spread its wings, revealing on each a bright chestnut patch, edged on the upper side with black and heightened by a surround of glowing gold. The two patches glare at you like a pair of huge eyes. If you stand your ground, the bird will rise and stalk towards you with such confidence that anyone unfamiliar with it might be forgiven for thinking that the creature in front of them was actually dangerous. That, doubtless, is the intended message. It is not, of course, true. The bird is telling a lie.
Readers who come to this book from the mini-series – indeed, from any David Attenborough nature series – will know to expect another aspect too, and they won’t be disappointed: in the mini-series and in much greater detail in the book, our author has a penchant for telling us amazing natural history stories we never quite knew before, like the unbelievable birth of the humble megapode:
Of all the ground-nesting birds, the most swiftly independent is the infant megapode. Its incubation period is particularly long – sixty to eighty days. The egg, being buried in a mound, does not have to withstand being rolled around and sat on, as eggs in nests must be able to do. Accordingly, it has one of the thinnest of shells and the chick is able to break its way without much effort. Indeed, although some three weeks before it hatches, the little egg tooth begins to develop on its beak, this come to nothin and soon disappears unused. The megapode chick is the only bird that manages to break out of its shell without the assistance of such a tool. But the task that it next faces is a very exhausting one. Above it lies a foot or so of earth. Lying on its back, it kicks out with its feet which, like those of its parents, are disproportionately large. As it loosens the earth, it humps its back and wriggles so that dislodged soil is pushed beneath it and it slowly moves upward. All this activity is fuelled entirely by the remains of the huge yolk which lies in its infant stomach. It will take several days to dig its way up to the surface, but by the time it does arrive there, it is a totally independent individual with a full complement of feathers that are so well developed that it is able to fly immediately.
And The Life of Birds, like all Attenborough’s marvellous books (cynicism would guess that they’re all factory-written by interns and assistants and then polished by the man himself, but since such cynicism makes the same claim about the speeches and histories of Winston Churchill, I’m content no matter what the truth of it may end up being), has something often sorely lacking from other fact-filled works of natural history: sweep. His books take on big subjects and never let us forget how big they are. The many amazing species of birds in these pages are living in some of the most dramatic ways of any life-form on Earth, and all of that drama is captured perfectly here, as in this passage about the great crowds of emperor penguins incubating their eggs while their females are off in the northern oceans feeding:
As the winter winds begin to blow, the days darken, the temperatures fall, and the emperors huddle closer and closer together. The blizzards increase in severity, the wind screams across the ice at 100 miles an hour and the males huddle still closer, their beaks drawn down to their chests so that the napes of their necks, pressed tightly together, form a feathered roof with scarcely a gap between them. They have nothing to eat. Mid-winter comes and for a month there is total darkness, except for the shifting veils and curtains of the Southern Lights playing overhead.
I can’t recommend The Life of Birds highly enough, whether you’ve seen the mini-series of the same name or not (of course, I can’t recommend the mini-series highly enough either, but that would be a different blog altogether). The world’s most remarkable animal is not man (nor, alas, is it dog), and that most remarkable kind has its greatest portrait here.