Dancing with birds

Thursday, April 7, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- Ever see an ornithologist moonwalk?

Kimberly Bostwick, curator of birds and mammals at Cornell University's Museum of Vertebrates, glides backward, Michael Jackson style, to illustrate the courting moves of the manakin, a small golden-headed bird.

Her stage is the leaf-covered floor of a Central American jungle, where in the branches above, the manakins are getting it on with their dance of love.

Although the birds are common, the exact nature of their mating ritual wasn't known until Bostwick captured it on her high-speed video camera -- 500 frames a second, to be exact. Played back in slow motion, the birds' choreography of courtship was visible for the very first time.

Also discovered on tape: The sound the birds generate comes from the slapping of their wings, not from their throats, as was previously believed.

Bostwick's racy brand of bird-watching is included in "Deep Jungle," a three-part PBS "Nature" miniseries -- "New Frontiers," "Monsters in the Forest" and "The Beast Within" -- airing April 17, 24 and May 1, at 7 p.m.

Be-bopping birds aside, what makes this nature series unusual is that the animals share the billing with the people who study them.

"Traditionally, wildlife films didn't often have people in them, but the genre has moved a bit, it's become more flexible, more intimate," says co-executive producer Brian Leith. "It's moved to a style where you can tap in to all these talented, engaging, knowledgeable people like Kim."

Thanks to the impression that tightly edited video can give, "you think there are going to be things leaping out at you everywhere," she says, "but in fact you can sit or walk around for an hour and see nothing, until suddenly you'll notice overwhelming pockets of activity."

Leith believes "good storytellers" like Bostwick mean you don't have to "go down the rather boring route" of many nature programs that focus almost exclusively on how dangerous wild creatures can be.

"But at the same time we are there to entertain, not there to preach. If we start wagging a finger, people will say, 'Hey, what's on the other channels."'

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