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Watch the birdie

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Birds have gotten a lousy rap in the movies. Alfred Hitchcock convinced us they wanted to peck our eyes out in The Birds. Betty Davis served a freshly dead one for dinner, feathers and all, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Burt Lancaster made them his bitch in Birdman of Alcatraz. But that's all behind them now that they're the subjects of a new documentary three years in the making.

Winged Migration is the latest film by Jacques Perrin, the man who brought us an up-close look at bug love in Microcosmos. Perrin has transformed the lowly nature film into something extraordinary by using specially designed cameras and an army of filmmakers to capture the perspective of his critter du jour.

For Winged Migration, five film crews flew hot air balloons, gliders and helicopters over five continents to capture various species on their annual flights for survival. Greater Sage Goose, Eurasian Crane, European White Stork, Whooper Swan, Arctic Tern -- the birds' names are as exotic as the terrain they fly over -- Iceland, Kosovo, the Arctic Circle, Monument Valley, the Seine.

The camera cruises through the sky along with the flock, the lens focused on a single bird. From a copilot's vantage, we witness the constant flap of the wings that steadily propels the torpedo-shaped body forward. We marvel at the economy of its construction -- from pointed beak to round chest to pinched tail, every nuance of its shape is designed for flight.

Because migrating birds are always on the lookout for water, there's plenty of earthbound footage, too. It's on land where bird behavior seems most peculiar. In one extended sequence, we follow a gaggle of geese wandering through an industrial site in Poland. Eerily, they appear to share one mind as they waddle in unison and make a sudden turn in the same direction at the same instant. They are a study in conformity. One finally busts out on its own, only to wind up trapped in some sludge. The rest of the geese turn and walk quickly away, leaving their flying buddy behind.

Winged Migration isn't especially educational. The narration is minimal, and you won't learn, for instance, how many times a certain species might migrate in its lifetime. But it is a visual banquet of natural beauty that's indelible enough to vanquish unsettling mental images of pecked-out eyeballs once and for all.

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