Ornithology, Taxonomy, and Pecking Orders: The Science Behind ‘The Birds’

Seeker's Bad Science podcast explores the zoological weirdness behind Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film.

Here's a good word to keep in your back pocket: ornithophobia. It means fear of birds, and the psychiatric condition was famously celebrated — or perhaps stoked — in Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1963 horror film The Birds.

The film chronicles a series of unexplained and vicious bird attacks in the small town of Bodega Bay, California. (It's supposedly based on a true story. But aren't they all?) Hitchcock structured the movie as a standard horror show, but also sprinkled in his usual weirdness concerning men, women, and repressed sexuality.

As it turns out, the good director also dropped some dubious science into his signature scary bird movie. In this week's edition of Bad Science, Seeker's ongoing exploration of the scientific elements in famous films, host Ethan Edenberg is joined by Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager and resident bird nerd at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Writer, actor and stand-up comic Chris Fairbanks also sits in on this week's panel to read from the screenplay, contribute bird puns, and speculate darkly on the homicidal instincts of our avian brethren.

As a museum ornithologist, Garrett's job involves getting people interested in birds. As such, he admits up front that he harbors a slight prejudice against the famous film.

“People cite the movie all the time as a reason they're afraid of birds,” he said. “It's a horror movie, and it's totally unrealistic. Birds don't do those things. But if it works as a horror movie, that's the whole point, I guess.”

More than 3,000 individual birds were used in the production of the movie, which was largely filmed on location in Bodega Bay, about 40 miles north of San Francisco. But Garrett notes that the story's most famous birds — the big ravens — are actually not very common in that area.

“Apparently they were issued permits to trap these birds,” Garrett said. “Very generous permits.”

Garrett said that while the movie took evident liberties in depicting the variety of birds native to the region, it did get one species correct.

“The gulls were by and large the proper species — Western gulls, California gulls, the kinds you would see in Bodega Bay,” he said. “But most of those scenes were filmed at a garbage dump where there were just huge swarms of them.”

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This week's episode also features the game “What the Squawk,” in which Garrett valiantly attempts to identify recorded bird calls and digs into some anatomical specifics regarding birdsong. For instance, did you know that birds exhale through multiple vocal organs?

“That's how they can produce harmonics and competing noises that pile on each other,” he said.

Tune into this week's show for more on Hitchcock's famous film, including details on crows, ravens, grackles, and an odd tale about antique steampunk pianos.