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Illustra Media has produced many excellent DVDs, but the last one Flight: the Genius of Birds is one of their most awesome! It is certainly one that will appeal to entire families. While the previously released Metamorphosis (dealing with butterflies) provides amazing scenes and discussion, Flight not only provides wonderful photography, but also discussion which is easily understood by all. Moreover, even if one could not understand a word of the commentary, the scenes of birds in flight and the graphics still convey a powerful message.

Association producers of the film Drs. Paul Nelson and Timothy Standish provide the bulk of the commentary. Dr. Nelson introduces the whole topic with a reference to his own father, an aeronautical engineer, who used to remark: “If something works, it is not happening by chance!” This is something to keep in mind as we learn about the design features of birds which enable them to fly (just as the design features of aircraft enable them to fly and not to crash!)

Firstly the DVD focuses on embryology, the development of birds in the egg. We are shown an amazing series of real time and time lapse video clips of developing chicken eggs. Next, in logical sequence, we encounter scenes of young birds learning to fly. We are informed that the entire biology of birds is dedicated to their capacity for flight. It seems that the instinctive know-how is rooted in their genetics. Moreover the arrangement of bones, their hollow design (reinforced with girders and struts) and the arrangement of muscles (attached at unexpected angles to the bones) all are essential for flight.

One of the most amazing birds is the humming bird which, unusually for birds, can hover in mid-air, and fly backwards as well as forwards. These birds need lift all the time, not just on the down-stroke of the wing, and they have special design features to accommodate this.

We are next treated to a mid-air ballet, the swooping dance of up to 300,000 starlings in England. These flying flocks, called murmurations, never collide as their flocks merge and separate in endlessly changing flight patterns.

One of the most interesting discussions is the annual migrations of the Arctic tern. This small long-lived bird demonstrates the longest regular migratory route (about 71,000 km annually) of any animal. The report of a research program to establish the details of these bird flights was published in February 2010 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol. 107 #5 pp. 2078-2081). Carsten Egevang, the man who describes the research for us on the DVD, with fascinating video clips, is also the lead author of the scientific paper.

Dr. Egevang describes how, in July 2007, his team captured 50 birds at a nesting colony on Greenland. To each one they attached tiny light loggers (geolocators) to plastic leg rings. The next year they managed to re-capture 10 of these birds (an amazing accomplishment) and even more amazing, for 9 of the birds, the tiny retrieved recorders each provided an entire year’s worth of data concerning where the birds had been. The records demonstrated that many of the birds followed the African coastline heading south to Antarctica, and the coast of the Americas when heading north. Some birds however traced a figure 8 in their choice of route. It is an amazing coupe, to hear from the lead researcher on this interesting recent project!

In their concluding commentary, Drs. Nelson and Standish declare that birds represent engineering marvels and works of art — and we know where engineering and art come from! Thus “the biology and behaviours of flying birds offer some of the most compelling evidence for supernatural intelligence, design and purpose to be found anywhere in nature.”

Filmed on 3 continents, and featuring dramatic scenes of birds in flight, this 62 minute DVD is certain to delight all viewers.


Margaret Helder
December 2013

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