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Bird behaviour expert discusses real-life event that inspired Hitchcock horror film

University of Gloucestershire wildlife expert Professor Anne Goodenough has been sharing with a worldwide audience the research findings behind the real-life event that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film The Birds.

The Professor in Applied Ecology (pictured), who has carried out extensive research around bird behaviour, was a guest on the internationally released podcast ‘When would we die?’ for an episode about whether birds have the capability to co-ordinate mass attacks on humans.

Starring Tippi Hedren and released in 1963, The Birds focuses on a series of sudden and unexplained violent bird attacks on the people in the town of Bodega Bay, California.

Professor Goodenough, from the University’s School of Education and Science, explained how the film is believed to have been inspired by a real-life event that occurred in Capitola, California in 1961.

“Sooty shearwaters, which are sea birds, seemingly started attacking people in the city, dive-bombing people, buildings and cars, and regurgitating and vomiting half-digested fish,” said Professor Goodenough.

“We know that Alfred Hitchcock lived nearby, and we know that he called up the local newspaper that was reporting on the story to get more information.

“The cause of what happened remained a mystery for about 30 years until something similar happened in 1991 with brown pelicans. Again, it was in the same area, they were showing very odd behaviour and appeared to be ‘attacking’ the town.

four brown pelicans on water
Brown pelicans (credit Pixabay)

“What was happening there was that the pelicans in 1991, as the shearwaters were in 1961, were actually suffering from a neuro toxin, and that neuro toxin had been ingested by those birds.

“It is something that is produced by algae that occur within the ocean and it occurs naturally all the time, and it causes neurological malfunction.

“The birds didn’t know where they were or what they were doing, so they weren’t attacking, they were completely disorientated.”

Planned attacks by birds unlikely

Professor Goodenough told the podcast that while some species of birds can appear to become aggressive, such as when they are scavenging for food, it was unlikely that any bird species would have the mental capacity to carry out planned raids on human populations.

“Gulls flying after people’s chips or ice creams – that’s all about them trying to get food, so they’re not necessarily being aggressive,” she said.

“In other cases, it can be just because birds are quite bold, so sometimes you will find birds coming up to house windows or car windows and apparently attacking those.

“In most cases, that’s because they’re seeing their own reflection, and they think there’s another bird of the same species as them, and they either want to see it off or they want to mate with it.

“Some species of birds are very intelligent, but I don’t think they normally undertake plotting in the way we think the birds in the film do, so intelligence and the ability to plan a mass attack are two different things.

“For me, the intention of the film is to make you think there is some sinister underlying plot going on, it is planned and there might be an element of making up strategies ‘on the wing’ – that’s where reality and the movie diverge.”