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The Birds Movie Based on Three Versions But Not Actual Facts

Dear Bird Folks,

I just saw the movie Hitchcock, about the movie director Alfred Hitchcock. Most of the movie is centered around his film, Psycho, but at the very end there was a subtle hint about his next movie, The Birds. That got me wondering if The Birds was based on any kind of actual facts or was it all derived from Hitchcock’s clever imagination?

– Paul, Derry, NH


Not now, Paul,

Why did you have to ask this question now? It’s the middle of March. Couldn’t you have waited until the fall? It would have been a perfect Halloween question. But March? This is when I’m supposed to be writing about birds returning from the south and the coming of spring, not scary stuff. At first I thought about saving your question until fall, but I was too afraid I’d lose it between now and then. Also, I might not be able to write about birds in the fall. There’s a job opening in Rome that I’ve applied for and if I get the gig I’ll only be able to write about Cardinals from now on, and not the cardinals on our feeders…although they both dress the same.

When the movie The Birds arrived in the theaters, in 1963, I was much too young to see it. Even when this chilling movie was first shown on network TV, I was still too young, at least I was in theory. I remember my parents told me not to watch it, so of course I ignored them and watched it anyway. It’s not that I liked to disobey my parents, but it was important that I see this movie. I had the feeling that fifty years in the future, Paul, from Derry, NH would ask me a question about it and I had to be prepared.

British film director Alfred Hitchcock gets much of the credit for The Birds, but his movie is actually based on a 1952 short story. This story, also titled “The Birds,” was written by another Brit, Daphne du Maurier. But don’t think Alfred ripped off Daphne, because he didn’t. She got full credit. However, she may have taken her idea from yet another Brit, Frank Baker, who, in 1936 wrote a novel that was also called “The Birds.” (Apparently, nobody could think of new topic or title back then.) But poor Frank didn’t get any credit for his work and he wasn’t happy about it. When the movie came out he nearly sued Universal Studios, but changed his mind when Universal offered him two free tickets and a large popcorn. (At movie theater prices, a large popcorn alone is worth way more than anything he could win in court.)

All three versions of The Birds have one thing in common – birds beat up people. In Frank Baker’s novel, the attacks take place in London, but in Daphne du Maurier’s short story, the setting is an isolated farming community on the coast of Cornwall. It starts when a local farmer is awakened in the middle of the night by a bird tapping on the window of his cottage. (In England, everyone lives in a cottage.) A single tapping bird soon became two, then three and eventually hundreds. After a few stressful hours the birds stopped their tapping and all was quiet. (It is quickly discovered that the birds only attack at high tide for some reason.) The farmer takes advantage of the lull to board up his windows. Meanwhile, his neighbor thinks he has a better solution. Instead of boarding up his windows, he takes out his gun and shoots every bird he sees (because as we know, guns solve all our problems). When the next high tide arrives the birds continue their assault on the farmer’s house, but the boards do their job and both he and his family are safe. However, his neighbor doesn’t fare nearly as well. The farmer looks out and sees a bloodied body and realizes that his neighbor won’t be firing his gun any longer.

At first, only songbirds attack the cottage, but slowly the bird species become increasingly larger. Songbirds give way to doves, then crows, then gulls; lastly, the birds of prey arrive. That’s when things really get ugly. The farmer keeps hoping someone will come to his rescue, but after listening to the BBC on the radio he learns these attacks are widespread. Then the radio goes silent. The farmer and his family are on their own. Then one morning the desperate farmer looks out and sees the British Navy anchored just offshore. Yea! They’re all saved. Well, not really. After further review, it turns out that the naval ships are actually massive flocks of birds just waiting for the next high tide. Uh-oh.

The Daphne du Maurier short story, as well as Hitchcock’s movie, end without informing us whether a final assault ever takes place. We also never know the reason for the attacks, but most readers come to the conclusion that the birds are on a mission. They have had enough of people and their destructive ways. It’s payback time. There has been too much habitat loss, too many oil spills and too many birds put in cages or baked in pies. The birds have decided it’s time to take back the planet. Once again, uh-oh.

So you see, Paul, very little of the movie The Birds came from Hitchcock’s imagination. It’s mostly from a novel and a short story. As for the movie being based on actual facts, the answer is no, of course not. Oh sure, the Internet is filled with funny videos of the occasional irate bird attacking people who may have gotten too close to a nest or something, but there has never been any organized, wide-spread bird attacks…yet.

Even though there isn’t any truth to The Birds, it sure made for a chilling story and a disturbing movie. Although, neither one is as frightening as the thought of me getting that job in Rome. That would be beyond scary.