Sir David Attenborough, veteran of many major book/television series combinations, has knocked them for six again with 'The Life of Birds'. This book is the perfect companion for learning more while watching the series, and yet stands alone admirably for those who haven't seen the series.
Sir David examines all aspects of the diversity of the community of birds. He begins with a discussion of what is considered the prime difference between birds and other animals -- flight. He starts by examining the archaeological record, and then proceeds to examine reasons why flight might have come to be developed in the first place. One of the early fossils of flying animals is the Archaeopteryx, which Sir David states 'could not have been the first backboned animal to have taken to the air. Its feathers have such a complex structure that they must be the product of a long evolutionary process...'
Of course, flight is not a requirement of birds. 'Giant flightless birds, however, do still stalk the earth,' says Sir David, who then proceeds to examine flightless birds and the reasons why they abandoned flight. 'Flying is very expensive in terms of energy and birds do not travel by air if it is safe for them to do so by land.'
Sir David examines the life cycles of several species of bird, from egg to death, which includes the feeding habits, the mating habits, and the limits of endurance. Here you will learn the different nesting and parenting problems. 'Most birds of prey lay more eggs than they can raise, feed the eldest preferentially and allow it to harry its younger sibling so unrelentingly that it dies. The winner will then usually eat the loser, so the nutriment invested by the parents in the extra egg and the food they have given to the nestling it produced, is not wasted. The macaroni penguin has a strange variant of this practice. It also lays two eggs, but the first is smaller than the second, hatches later and seldom survives.'
You will learn about different feeding patterns, including those birds which nose-dive into water to catch their dinner. 'Entering the water in order to find food clearly presents greater problems than making brief dips with the beak. Because birds are warm-blooded, they run the risk of getting seriously chilled.'
The European dipper relies upon oils and air pockets between feathers to keep itself warm during such dips. Of course, many birds live on or in the water. This points out the diversity apparent in birds. Obviously penguins, ducks, geese, etc. have no problems in the water, even very cold water.
Mating habits include such things as bright plumage, interesting movements and feather patterns that change, songs and signals, and even intricate dance/flight patterns. For instance, the blue-footed booby of Galapagos tends to display and dance to attract a mate (very human of it, in fact!). Some mate more easily than others -- 'The male European wren expects to provide her with a nest and a male may build up to a dozen nests in different sites before he produces one that convinces a female that he will be an adequate partner.' The photographs in this section of the book are very interesting, many are humourous and some even romantic.
The limits of endurance show that birds have adapted themselves to every climate on earth. Emperor penguins have no trouble with the antarctic cold. The sandgrouse has adapted itself to desert climates. And of course, several birds have adapted themselves to the environments of humanity, thriving on the food production methods and refuse of our society.
A fascinating tale, a great life to be read. 'The Life of Birds' is essential to any armchair birdwatcher, and anyone interested in nature, and will be enjoyed by many more.