My Toronto backyard is a playground for songbirds. We have a resident cardinal and his mate that have claimed our property as theirs. Robins, sparrows, chickadees and crows land on the lawn in droves. We’ve had woodpeckers on our dying tree in the back, and goldfinches in the flowers out front.
But we’re on the verge of losing our birds forever. That’s what SongbirdSOS—part of Thursday’s episode of The Nature of Things—posits. As York University’s Dr. Bridget Stutchbury says, species of birds still exist, but their numbers are way down. The wood thrush population in the Americas is down 62 per cent since 1966; the Baltimore Oriole is down over 45 per cent; the Bobolink has seen a 64 per cent decline. The question is, why?
Beautifully shot, SongbirdSOS suggests a few sobering answers. Mankind’s creation of artificial light has messed with the birds’ ability to migrate during the night, disorienting them and causing midair collisions. And, of course, we’ve constructed huge skyscrapers that songbirds fly into, a point driven home by FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Canada when they lay out the bodies of hundreds of dead birds on a plain white sheet for all to see. Lost breeding and wintering habitats in rain forests, wetlands and boreal forests, oil pipelines and farm pesticides are contributing to declining song bird numbers, as well as house cats.
On the positive side, there are steps being taken to halt the dropping populations, including allowing birds to feast on hurtful insects in Costa Rican coffee fields and mandating building owners to switch off the lights at night. Hopefully enough changes will come in time to save the songbirds before their tunes cease.
The Nature of Things airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBC.
Why have homo sapiens emerged as the only hominid left standing, capable of settling the world? That’s the goal of Gemini Award-winning anthropologist Niobe Thompson’s ambitious, gorgeous three-part The Great Human Odyssey.
Debuting Thursday with “Rise of a Species” as part of The Nature of Things, Thompson’s energetic narration can’t help but keep you interested as he traces mankind’s origins back to Africa and the cradle of life, where our ancestors battled for survival among other beasts in sometimes inhospitable conditions. Why did homo sapiens survive? Thompson—who has no qualms about putting his own life on the line for his studies—joins the bushmen of Africa’s Kalahari Desert where he witnesses how water is gained by watching where elephants quench their thirst and how harvesting grubs that live among the roots of a deadly tree gains poison for their spears and arrows.
Filmed over the course of 18 months, Thompson’s adventures are stunning to witness, a riot of colour, action and education. He and his crew of 22 cinematographers braved some of the most hostile sections of the planet, including Siberian winter, African deserts, remote islands in the Pacific and the ice of the Bering Strait.
Excavations that occurred during filming uncovered a treasure trove of new research. Among the new information gathered is proof that South Africa’s Cape Coast is the source of man’s earliest use of language, art, jewelry and projectile weapon making, and samples of human remains from the Russian Arctic show humans settled far earlier in that area than previously believed.
The Great Human Odyssey airs for three weeks under The Nature of Things banner on Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBC.
I’ll never look at pigeons the same way again.
Living in Toronto for over a decade has taught this small-town boy a few things, including watching out for the ubiquitous grey-feathered beasts fluttering around the downtown core. They bob and coo their way up to people sitting on park benches, eager to dart in and scoop up any morsel of food that tumbles to the ground. I viewed them with scorn and labelled them as pests. But I’ll show them a little more respect the next time we cross paths.
This week’s excellent episode of The Nature of Things, “The Secret Life of Pigeons,” pulls back the curtain on a bird that was once an important part of our daily lives. Written and directed by Scott Harper (The Age of Anxiety), “Pigeons” goes back in time to reveal that they were the first animal on earth to be domesticated and the crucial role they played during wartime of old by flying important messages to troops.
And the suckers are smart. Among the uncanny skills revealed during the episode: pigeons recognize human faces, spread themselves out amid food scraps so each gets some, and their young are among the fastest-growing on the planet. The highlight of the instalment for me was not only an explanation into how pigeons find their way back home from long distances, but the moment an HD camera was strapped to a bird’s back, offering a glimpse into what life is like for a pigeon in flight.
My second favourite segment? A peek into the life of pigeon fanciers, who strive to prolong the life of some of the world’s rarest–and pretty freaky-looking–pigeons.
The Nature of Things, “The Secret Life of Pigeons,” airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBC.