From the team behind the breathtaking, 8-part docuseries Our Planet, Dancing with the Birds is a new doc about the delightfully bizarre mating rituals of tropical fowl, available to stream on Netflix. Narrated by British comedian Stephen Fry, this 51-minute film takes a quite playful approach to the mysteries of nature.
Some of the colorful birds spotlighted, for example, are given cutesy nicknames like Flame and Bob—because making a “wingman” double entendre just rolls off the tongue better when you aren’t bogged down by the clumsy syllables of “male lance-tailed manakin.” Our redheaded manakin friend is referred to as “Alpha,” since he is the one who gets to mate in the end, relegating his loyal male dance partner to another branch while he and the sole female manakin do the deed.
Like all of the best nature films, Dancing with the Birds sculpts a simple narrative from striking footage of the circle-of-life processes that take place every day, all over the world. They are the kinds of animal behaviors to which we often bear witness, but rarely know what is going on. Luckily, we have Fry as our guide, whose drily humorous narration decodes each shake of a tail feather. Once Fry assigns the twelve-wired bird-of-paradise the nickname “TW” and states his objective—to perch on a tall tree stump in the hopes of attracting a mate—you’re hooked, rooting for TW to get laid just like you would urge your favorite sports team to victory.
That the birds are at once majestic and funny-looking, with glorious plumage in rainbow hues offset by cartoonish beady eyes, adds to the charm. TW, short for twelve-wired, is so named because of the long, wiry feathers that stick out from his bright yellow rear-end. He uses his prominent beak to landscape his perch, referred to throughout the film as a “display pole.” Soon, a smaller, chestnut-colored bird takes interest and the elaborate mating dance begins. She seems reluctant at first, but, as Fry says, “She hasn’t given up on him yet. He just needs to charm her onto his pole.”
Twelve-wired birds of paradise are, apparently, the kinkiest birds in the rainforest. When Fry explains that “female twelve-wires like to be flicked across the face by a male’s tail,” I am forced to spit out my Diet Coke onto my laptop keyboard. Set to a soundtrack of ‘40s swing music, TW hops around the display pole, showing off his gratuitous neon bottom and swishing his 12 wires until his female companion is convinced that he is the one.
Dancing with the Birds is split into several parts with labels like “The Swinger,” “The Artists,” and “The Pole Dancers” to signify the techniques birds from different regions use to attract mates. One particularly impressive specimen, the MacGregor’s bowerbird, spends years building an elaborate, 3-foot-tall tower of sticks and is able to accurately mimic sounds like a pig snorting, a dog barking, and even children playing. Another bird, the black sicklebill, puts on a stunning display with his physical appearance alone, fanning out his shiny indigo and black feathers in a stark contrast with his crimson eyes. At just under an hour, the family-friendly film is short enough to avoid feeling repetitive or boring.
On my walk to work this morning, I was almost run over by two sparrows—their brown-and-grey feathers dull in comparison to their Netflix-famous counterparts, no doubt sullied by New York City pollution—busily engaged in a swirling dance not unlike the ones captured in the film. I don’t know if their irregular flight pattern was part of a mating ritual. I am not, if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, a bird expert—just a lover of heart-warming animal content.
I am sure someone who is a bird expert will email me soon after this article is published to explain that I am wrong in my speculation that I interfered with sparrow copulation, or even in identifying the small brown birds as sparrows in the first place. But after watching Dancing with the Birds, I will never be able to look at a bird flying in aimless circles, freakishly bobbing its head, or hopping on one foot the same way again.