The Secret Life Of Birds

Last night, with a couple of friends and a friend of a friend, I watched Winged Planet, a BBC Earth production that was the second night of a two-night David Tennant event. The narration work was well done, restrained and full of gentle irony, and the cinematography was astounding, featuring camera work that included fitting some of the larger birds with head-mounted cameras that truly captured a birds-eye view of the world. Focusing mostly on the birds of North America, Europe, and Africa, the film looks at the seasons through the migratory and breeding patterns of a variety of bird species [1].

There are some patterns that can be determined from the material shown. For one, as sentient beings, it is impossible not to ascribe to the birds some degree of personality, whether one looks at their precise flying in response to environmental threats, or the way that they often opportunistically and dangerously seek to cooperate with other predators for their meals. The precise memory of some of the bird species has allowed human landmarks to become a draw to birds, showing the symbiosis between humans and birds that serves to the benefit of both. Rather than pitting mankind and these bird species as enemies, this movie has a more harmonious approach.

What is remarkable is that this symbiosis of birds extends far beyond those areas that we have well understood in the past, showing that not only competition but also cooperation based on complementary niches is a feature of life. All too often, evolutionary biology (and and its offshoots like social darwinism) have emphasized competition rather than showing the balance with cooperation and harmony that exist in creation. This harmony shows itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes birds work as equal partners with other creatures, as in the case where cape gannets cooperate with clever dolphins to locate and then herd the great sardine migration for their mutual benefit. At other times, vultures and alligators, sea gulls and great white sharks, bald eagles and grizzly bears, and egrets and dolphins work together as the larger creature does the work while the bird takes a share as a scavenger. It was hard not to think of welfare problems when one sees how birds like the egret no longer attempted to hunt fish because dolphins brought so many to shore that the egrets no longer needed to work for themselves. Problems of personal responsibility, after all, are not limited to the world of human politics.

Sometimes the witnessing of cooperation provides other benefits. For example, brown pelicans follow humpback whales and devil rays in search of the anchovies that they all eat in common. The exploration of this cooperative behavior end up demonstrating behavior that is truly quirky, like the somersaulting of devil rays who leap and twist in the air, as if they are attempting to fly before flopping back into the water. Such devil rays, in fact, look very adorable as they flap their wings, so to speak, as they launch themselves into the air for a few seconds at a time. When we look at creation, we see one of the most important lessons we can gain as students of the world outside of us and inside of us. One is that we cannot examine behavior without looking at the broader context, and another is that our attempt to understand any one particular event or situation will lead to greater connections than we could possibly have imagined, because far more connections are present between beings and situations than we recognize until we study matters in depth and in detail.

There were some aspects of the movie that I found somewhat melancholy. So much of the behavior of birds was focused in family groups (many birds are intensely sociable animals) and also on the importance of the balance of feeding and breeding. While I am not too shabby when it comes to feeding, my success with ladies has not been particularly exemplary. It is rather humbling to see the elegant dances of flamingos or Japanese cranes, and to think that such creatures are far more successful than I am at matters of the heart. Considering that I was watching this film in the first place with three women whose interest in the project was largely based on it being narrated by the actor who played the tenth Dr. Who [2] added some layers of irony to the situation. But what is my life, if not ironic?

[1] The full version of the series includes birds from South America (only the macaws are included in the shorter version), Asia (only the Japanese cranes are briefly but poignantly included) and Australia as well.

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Secret Life Of Birds

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Common Birds Of Washington & Oregon | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Birds Of The Pacific Northwest | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Atlas Of Birds | Edge Induced Cohesion

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