The Life Of Birds

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Details At A Glance

Category Documentary Main Menu Audio and Animation
Additional Footage (42:34)
Year Released 1998
Running Time 497:20 minutes
RSDL/Flipper Disc 1: 73:32
Disc 2: 71:43
Disc 3: Dual Layer
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region 2,4 Director Joanna Sarsby
Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring David Attenborough
Case Slip Case
RPI $89.95 Music Ian Butcher
Steven Faux

Pan & Scan/Full Frame ?Full Frame English (Dolby Digital 2.0, 224 Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Theatrical Aspect Ratio ?1.33:1
Macrovision Yes Smoking No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

Plot Synopsis

   I suppose my general feelings on the quality of television of the past decade are well-known. Equally, I would suspect that my views upon television being the one great untapped source of DVD programming are just as well-known. Indeed, I have on occasion much bemoaned the fact that quality programming from the ilk of the British Broadcasting Commission simply is not appearing on DVD as fast as it should be. So, when this particular collection came up for review, I simply had to have it. Quite simply, The Life Of Birds epitomizes exactly the sort of programming from television that we should be seeing significantly more of on DVD. Indeed, when considering the sort of material that I would have liked to see on DVD, The Life Of Birds was pretty much amongst the top two or three choices.

   There are some very good reasons why it should have made the transition to DVD. Not the least of those is the fact that just about anything that David Attenborough has done in the natural history field stands significantly above most other programming in the area. The Life Of Birds is no exception. Frankly, this series is perhaps the pinnacle of his great career and is likely to remain the definitive series on these marvellous animals for many years to come, for if it does not get a mention here, then it probably is hardly worthwhile knowing. As an educational experience, this is about as good as it will ever get, providing an excellent overview of the origin and rise of the birds and just what makes them tick. That educational experience is provided in a most entertaining manner, and I would be hard-pressed to recall any situation where I would willingly sit down and watch over eight hours of programming on one topic over the course of consecutive three and five hour sessions. Part of the reason why it is so entertaining is the fact that the quality of the photography here is virtually unexcelled. There are things captured on film in this programming that simply demolishes anything that went before it. It is simply a stunning series, and really defies any pitiful attempts by myself to throw superlatives at it.

   The series comprises ten episodes as follows:

   To Fly Or Not To Fly (49:12) - looks at the evolution of the bird through the fossil record and how some birds gave up flight for the ground whilst others continued the evolution into perhaps the most diverse group of animals on the planet.

   The Mastery Of Flight (49:10) - looks at the one defining characteristic of most birds - their ability to fly and how important it is to their success as animals. It also provides a nice encapsulation of exactly how they fly - aeronautical design made easy.

   The Insatiable Appetite (49:10) - looks at the way the birds' one real tool, their beak, has evolved to meet the demands of the wide variety of food sources that the birds rely upon, often with extreme regularity. It also shows that humans are not the only animals on the planet who have discovered the importance of tools to do their work.

   Meat-Eaters (49:10) - which looks at those birds whose food tastes have run to one of the richest sources of food energy on the planet - animal flesh. It also looks at the specialized tools that those birds have developed in order to tap this vast food source.

   Fishing For A Living (49:04) - since two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, it is only natural that a successful group like the birds has plundered its bountiful resources for food. This looks at the various ways in which birds are exploiting the oceans' bounty.

   Signals And Songs (49:21) - communication is obviously of great importance to many animals, but for the birds it is of paramount importance. And so those beautiful songs and wonderful plumage displays have more meaning than to just impress we mere humans: they are the tools by which the birds warn of danger, deter predators, intimidate rivals and secure mating rights.

   Finding Partners (49:11) - which details some of the quite extraordinary lengths that some birds go to in order to attract a mate - either in polygamous or monogamous relationships - and the devious means by which they sometimes ensure that they spread their genes around anyway.

   The Demands Of The Egg (49:11) - wherever they may make their home, there is one defining commonality of the birds - they lay eggs. But doing so imposes often serious limitations upon the birds and this episode looks at the sort of problems involved in the whole process of finding and building a nest and the resultant incubating of eggs.

   The Problems Of Parenthood (49:11) - everyone knows that children are difficult and it is no different for the birds. Indeed, the constant demands for food, the need for constant surveillance against predators and the need to educate the hatchlings in the skills necessary to survive demand serious commitment from at least most bird parents.

   The Limits Of Endurance (54:40) - the success of the birds can be measured by the fact that they inhabit just about every corner of the globe, in areas that even man chooses to avoid. But constant changes and disasters provide constant challenges to the birds, and these are overcome in many ways by the very adaptive birds. But ultimately the future of the birds is very much tied to whether or not man wants to share the planet with these magnificent animals.

    Really, this is a series that has it all: wonderfully informative, tremendously entertaining, brilliantly photographed and at times deeply thought-provoking. The programming alone should see this inducted into the Hall Of Fame, it is that good. I seriously doubt that I will ever tire of watching this tremendous series, one of the absolute best natural history series ever made. However, what should be and what will be are two entirely different things and this may well end up in the Hall Of Shame.

Transfer Quality


    The reason why this DVD set may well end up in the Hall Of Shame becomes readily apparent within fifteen minutes of firing up Disc One of this three DVD set. If there is one defining characteristic we could ascribe to BBC DVDs thus far it is the fact that they have largely suffered from problems associated with grain and overcompression. Well, this one does not suffer largely from the problems, it suffers enormously from them. In the space of fifteen minutes this set went from potentially being the best DVD release for 2001, and one I admit to have wished for since almost getting into DVD, to being in my top two or three DVD disappointments of all time. The quality of the programming has been seriously, and in my eyes fatally, damaged by one of the poorest mastering jobs I have seen outside of one certain unrespected DVD distributor.

    The transfer is presented in what is presumed to be a Full Frame format and it is of course not 16x9 enhanced. I have been unable to source any definitive information as to whether this series was filmed in widescreen format or not, but I am guessing from the general composition of the series that it was shot Full Frame. Whichever way it was originally intended for broadcast, of one thing I am sure: this is definitely not in an aspect ratio of 16:9 as stated on the packaging.

    Since the problems with this transfer boil down to two things in the main, let's discuss them immediately. The transfer generally suffers from some lousy MPEG artefacting that at times renders the transfer almost unwatchable in my view. Just about every shot involving camera movement demonstrates a loss of resolution and an attack of blockiness in the background that really destroys the picture at times. This often affects shots of birds flying over landscape and manifests itself as a distinct lack of resolution of the background such that it becomes an indistinct mess over which a mildly indistinct bird may or may not be seen very well. Unfortunately, the opening episode on Disc One is perhaps the worst offender but it is to be found in every episode in the series to some extent. When the film resorts to slow motion the appearance gets even worse. On odd occasions, the MPEG problems also seem to extend to a slight ghosting of the image, although this is far less of an issue.

    Coupled with this at times almost grotesque-looking MPEG artefacting is some of the most horrendous grain that I have seen, especially in material of this recent vintage. Episodes 2 and 9 are especially badly affected and grain really made it hard to watch the programming. Whilst it was true that I was expecting some grain here, due to some of the extreme close-up photography as well as the use of long lenses, this far exceeded what I was reasonably expecting. These two factors alone are enough to condemn this as one of the worst-looking transfers in parts that I have had the misfortune to watch. I would strongly suggest that this NOT be watched on anything larger than a 70cm television - I would hazard a guess that on a large screen this is going to look more horrendous than Russell Crowe in drag.

    There is also a very slight break-up of the picture in Episode 3 around the 34:59 mark, which is also accompanied by a slight glitch in the soundtrack. Even after thorough cleaning with my trusty Disc Rx Disc Restore kit, the break-up is still there, strongly suggesting that this is an inherent problem in the disc.

    All of the aforementioned is a great pity for when the transfer actually settles down it demonstrates that inherently this is some seriously good-looking stuff. Obviously, the filming of some of the birds using extreme close-ups with long lenses is not conducive to ultra-sharp transfers, but at its best this really is sharp, detailed material as befits the effort spent in filming it. Definition would have been superb and there were no real issues with shadow detail at all - bearing in mind the difficulties of shooting in caves and at night and in low light using special low light cameras (which themselves produce an inherently grainier look). Clarity when the grain actually disappeared was very good and there did not appear to be any low level noise in the transfer. All in all, the best bits on the DVDs only serve to illustrate that this should and probably could have been a vastly better transfer had the mastering been done with more care than was obviously lavished here. Fundamentally an extreme disappointment.

    Naturally when talking about birds we would expect to see a vivid palette of colours on offer and that is indeed what we get. There are plenty of bright and vibrant colours on offer here, and this is one area where the transfer did not disappoint. They really have managed to capture the colour of the birds. The only issue is that the aforementioned close-ups somewhat introduce a grainy look to some of the colours, but this is a readily acceptable inherent problem. There is a nice purity of tone throughout such that at no time was I disappointed with any false colour images of the birds (that is, ones showing obvious boosting of the colours). Colour saturation was excellent throughout and there was no issue with oversaturation at all. Perhaps one or two shots here and there in the more extreme environments displayed a slight undersaturation but considering the period of time over which this was shot, I am surprised that they got such a consistent look to the colours.

    Apart from the problems already noted, there did not appear to be any other significant MPEG artefacts in the transfer. There was only minor indications of aliasing or shimmering here and there, mainly noted in "notched" edged beaks rather than "smooth" edged beaks, otherwise this was free of any film-to-video artefacts. Apart from a couple of video glitches (one in Episode 4 around 2:49) there was nothing here in the way of film artefacts.

    Discs One and Two in the set are RSDL formatted DVDs. The layer changes are a little noticeable but not overly disruptive to the programming. They come at 24:20 in Episode 2 (73:32 overall) and 22:33 in Episode 5 (71:43 overall). If I were to really quibble, I would suggest that the latter change takes a little too long to negotiate. Disc Three is a Dual Layer DVD, with two episodes per layer.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-to-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 2.0 effort.

    The excellent narrative was at all times clear and easy to understand. There did not appear to be any significant audio sync problems in the transfer. Once or twice it just looked like the dialogue was very, very, very slightly out with respect to the video. My father watched a short section of the DVD and said he thought it was slightly out of sync.

    The original music comes from Ian Butcher and Steven Faux and it does a fine job of supporting the narrative and on-screen action well. This is perhaps an understated part of the natural history programmes of the BBC, but I am quite sure that if the music were not there, we would miss it significantly.

    Since we are talking about a documentary programme, there is nothing much required of the soundtrack other than to convey the dialogue clearly and cleanly, and give enough clarity to the bird calls and the like in this instance. There is nothing in the way of surround and bass channel usage here at all. The overall soundtrack does what is asked of it, and is free of distortions. Perhaps a little more clarity from a 5.1 soundtrack would have been nice, but there really is nothing much to complain about here.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    Apart from some menu audio and animation, nothing, not even any notes printed on the inside slick cover. Well, that is what it looks like. In fact, buried in the scene selection menus of each episode is the selection additional footage. I strongly disapprove of this sort of hiding of additional material and prefer it to be clearly noted either in the main menu or in a special features menu.


    Noteworthy for the fact that the highlight for selections is not exactly the most obvious under the sun, and it takes a little getting used to. There is also a mastering glitch on Disc Three in that if you select the play all episodes button, after the third episode on the DVD you are returned to the main menu and have to select the fourth episode manually, rather than the episode playing automatically like the previous three episodes.

Additional Footage (42:34)

   Episodes 1 through 9 have additional footage ranging in length from 4:39 to 5:16 per episode (mainly 4:40 per episode). The presentation is exactly the same as the main programme and suffers from exactly the same sort of problems. There is no explanation as to why this footage was not included in the main programme, but most of it is interesting enough and includes some worthwhile stuff.


    As far as we have been able to ascertain, there are no censorship issues with this title.

R4 vs R1

    As far as we have been able to ascertain, this has not yet been released in Region 1.


    The Life Of Birds is in my view one of the very best natural history series ever seen on television and as such was an obvious and extremely welcome release onto DVD. However, rather than finding its way into the Hall Of Fame as it deserves, it will instead reside in the Hall Of Shame as a result of a lousy mastering job. There are parts of the transfer that quite clearly indicate that this transfer could have been and should have been significantly better than what we have received. This is not the fault of Roadshow Home Entertainment, but rather the BBC from whom they have received the master. I would strongly suggest to Roadshow Home Entertainment and ABC Video that they urgently talk to the BBC about the mastering of their DVDs, for if we continue to see this sort of poor quality mastering, it is going to do none of the parties any good at all. I would just love to see what sort of superlative job Roadshow Home Entertainment could themselves do with this material, based upon their recent film mastering efforts. Whilst I would have loved to be able to give this the highest possible recommendation, I unfortunately can only recommend that you check out the quality yourself to see whether you are as badly affected by the transfer quality as I.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris (have a laugh, check out the bio)
9th June, 2001.

Review Equipment
DVD Pioneer DV-515; S-video output
Display Sony Trinitron Wega 80cm. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built in
Amplification Yamaha RXV-795. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Energy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL