The Life of Birds

David Attenborough, Author
David Attenborough, Author Princeton University Press $35 (320p) ISBN 978-0-691-01633-7
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 09/01/1998
European swifts sleep and mate in midair. The lammergeier, a vulture, eats large bones, ""like a circus sword-swallower."" The male sungrebe carries his young in tiny pouches akin to ""saddlebags."" These are just a few of the delightful avian minutiae to be culled from eminent naturalist Attenborough's latest book, a highly readable and vibrantly photographed survey of bird behavior. With a careful hand, Attenborough (The Private Life of Plants) takes readers around the world, offering vivid descriptions of eating habits, flight, communication, mating, parenthood and environmental adaptability. The shearwater in Japan must launch itself from a treetop in order to get off the ground; Attenborough compares the shape of its wing to ""a comma lying on its side... the almost magical device that keeps a bird in the air."" Ample color photos illustrate the quirks of evolution that Attenborough playfully describes and highlight the scope of his project. Sandgrouse fill up at a desert watering hole in South Africa and penguins cavort on an iceberg. Indeed, the pictures themselves are a marvel and will have readers wondering more than once: ""How did they get that shot?"" Just as, perhaps, they may wonder how Attenborough has been able to gather such myriad fascinating discoveries of nature (he acknowledges the contributions of professionals and ""masochistic"" amateurs). Notably, this is not a long book. But it is an extraordinarily rich one. FYI: An accompanying 10-part PBS series will air in 1999. (Dec.)
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