10 Fascinating Facts About The Birds
By Mark Mancini
There’s an old saying in Hollywood: You’re only as good as your last movie. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock unleashed Psycho, his most financially successful film and a trendsetting horror classic. Just when it seemed as though there was nothing left for him to prove, he climbed right back into the director’s chair. Hitchcock’s next picture was The Birds, a technical marvel against which all creature features—from Jaws to Cujo—are now measured.
1. IT WAS THE THIRD DAPHNE DU MAURIER STORY THAT HITCHCOCK ADAPTED.
Daphne du Maurier's work has been adapted dozens of times for film and television projects, and Alfred Hitchcock was a particular fan of the London-born author and playwright. Over the course of his career, he adapted three of du Maurier's stories, beginning with his 1939 film version of her thrilling novel Jamaica Inn. In 1940, he took Rebecca—du Maurier’s gothic masterwork which continues to sell 50,000 copies a year—and converted it into an Oscar-winning drama starring Laurence Olivier.
In 1952, du Maurier published The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories. One of the book’s highlights is a chilling tale called “The Birds.” An environmentally-conscious fable, it’s about a population of birds who start attacking humans after a harsh winter depletes their natural food supply. Hitchcock liked the basic premise and wanted to put “The Birds” on film. However, his adaptation would not be a faithful retelling.
Once Hitchcock bought the rights to du Maurier’s avian yarn, he hired screenwriter Evan Hunter to pen a script. Hunter remembered that, during an early telephone conversation, the director told him “We’re getting rid of the du Maurier story entirely. We’re just keeping the title and the notion of birds attacking people.” The result was a screenplay Hunter described as “a screwball comedy that turns into terror.”
2. AN AVIAN HOSPITAL WAS BUILT ON THE SET.
Through a meticulous positive reinforcement process, animal handler Ray Berwick trained hundreds of live birds for use in Hitchcock’s movie. Most of these were wild-caught crows, ravens, seagulls, and sparrows. Berwick oversaw an entire bird-wrangling team whose members spent a huge amount of time corralling their feathered co-workers between takes. To ensure that none of the animals was harmed, the American Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) assumed an active role in the production. Under their watchful eye, the crew set up a makeshift avian hospital.
“We actually built an aviary onto the set for birds that had been hurt or injured,” Veronica Cartwright, who played Cathy in the film, said. Another measure taken in the name of animal welfare was the construction of a large net, which the special effects team draped over the living room set; this kept the birds from flying haphazardly through the rest of the studio.
The wrangling team had plenty of other tricks up their sleeves as well. Sometimes, to get their feathered friends to fly toward a camera, the crew would suspend a hunk of meat beneath the lens. In one interview, Hitchcock noted that a lot of prep work went into the shot in which a seagull latches onto a girl at a birthday party, harassing her as she tries to run off. “[We] built a little platform on her shoulder and a gull was put there,” Hitchcock explained. For safety reasons, its beak was bound shut with wire.
3. ONE RAVEN STRONGLY DISLIKED ROD TAYLOR.
Like everyone else in the film, Rod Taylor’s character—Mitch Brenner—had to withstand a barrage of avian attacks. One particular bird really had it in for Taylor. There was a captive raven named Archie who seemingly went out of his way to attack the actor, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“Every morning, if we were on the set together, he’d come over and … bite me," Taylor revealed in Universal’s DVD documentary All About the Birds. "I hated him and he hated me.” It got to the point where Taylor started making inquiries about Archie’s whereabouts as part of his daily, on-set ritual. “I’d walk in and say, ‘Is Archie working today?’ And they’d say, ‘Uh, I don’t think so Rod. I think we’re working with seagulls.’ And out of the rafters would come Archie. [He] hated me and would lie in wait for me.”
4. HITCHCOCK’S DOGS MADE A CAMEO.
He’s remembered as both the master of suspense and an early adopter of cinematic Easter eggs. Alfred Hitchcock loved to make brief, on-screen appearances in his own films. By 1963, audiences had come to expect these little cameos. The Birds throws one at us when Melanie (Tippi Hedren) ducks into a pet store near the beginning of the picture. As she enters the place, you can see Hitchcock leading a pair of small dogs out. These pooches were Stanley and Geoffrey, the director’s lovable Sealyham Terriers. (An admirer of this breed, he’d previously owned another male named Mr. Jenkins.)
5. ONE OF MICKEY MOUSE’S CO-CREATORS WORKED AS A SPECIAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR.
Real, flesh-and-blood birds share the screen with a few mechanical ones in the film. Additionally, the movie relied heavily on matte work, a process whereby images from two separate reels of film are combined. This enabled footage of angry birds to be paired with separate shots depicting frightened actors. To help execute these effects, Hitchcock reached out to Ub Iwerks, an animator who’d been working for Walt Disney since 1924 and had helped create the Mickey Mouse character in 1927.
Renowned throughout Hollywood as a visual effects wizard, Iwerks was a self-taught expert on matte techniques. Disney agreed to hire him out to Universal so that he could put his knowledge to good use for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Iwerks was rewarded with an Oscar nod when The Birds was nominated for Best Special Effects in 1964. (It lost to the big-budget epic Cleopatra.)
6. A RESTAURATEUR IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA LET THE CREW USE HIS BUILDING—ON TWO SMALL CONDITIONS.
While much of the movie was filmed on studio lots, Hitchcock also filmed a large percentage on location in scenic Bodega Bay, California. Located 65 miles north of San Francisco, the small village offered some big advantages. “In order to get the photography of the birds in the air, we needed an area with low land, not high mountains or a lot of trees,” Hitchcock told Cinefantastique. “In a pictorial sense, it was vital to have nothing on the ground but sand, so that we had the entire sky to play with.”
Bodega Bay and the neighboring communities of Bodega and Bodega Head had everything the director was looking for, so Hitchcock employed all three places as locations. Several of the diner scenes were filmed at a Bodega Bay eatery called the Tides Restaurant. Then-owner Mitch Zankich struck a bargain with the filmmakers. “[He] told the locations manager that he would let them film his place for free if they would call the community in the movie Bodega Bay and if the hero was called Mitch,” Hazel Mitchell, who’d worked at the Tides as a waitress in those days, claimed. Zankich’s wishes were granted, and to sweeten the deal, he was given an on-screen appearance with a line of dialogue. “In the scene on the dock, when Tippi Hedren is attacked by the bird when she is in the skiff, a man asks Rod Taylor, ‘What happened, Mitch?’ And that was Mitch Zankich,” Mitchell said.
7. AN ALTERNATE ENDING WOULD’VE INVOLVED THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE.
Genre films have been unkind to the California landmark: A giant octopus attacked the Golden Gate Bridge in It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955); Magneto ripped the bridge off its foundation in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006); and a simian revolt broke out on its pavement in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). If Hitchcock had more money or time at his disposal, The Birds might have subjected the bridge to yet another indignity. Early in pre-production, Hitchcock entertained the idea of closing his film with a shot of several hundred birds perching on the Golden Gate. However, he quickly realized that this proposed visual would have been way too costly to shoot. Hunter’s script also called for a horde of birds to attack the roof of Mitch and Melanie’s car as they drive away from Bodega Bay at the end of the film. That concept was abandoned, too.
8. THE ATTIC SCENE TOOK AN ENTIRE WEEK TO SHOOT, AND PROVED TO BE TOO MUCH FOR TIPPI HEDREN.
When Cary Grant visited the set, he called Hedren the bravest lady he’d ever met. To put it mildly, she had a rough moviemaking experience. During the telephone booth scene, a pane of so-called “safety-glass” that shattered in her face turned out to be real glass; its shards were then painstakingly extracted from her nose and left cheek. And then there was the attic attack. Hedren’s character in The Birds is Melanie Daniels, a confident blonde who courts Mitch Brenner. One of the movie’s most shocking moments comes when Melanie takes a peek inside the Brenner family’s attic and finds a small army of birds hiding out. The second they see her, they charge Melanie, who’s rendered unconscious by their violent onslaught.
It’s a brutal scene that’s hard to watch and was a nightmare to film. Since this was a complex and emotionally taxing scene, Hedren spent a full week working on it. Hitchcock spent much of it ordering his crewmen to hurl live gulls at her from behind the camera because he thought this would intensify Hedren’s performance. Also, at regular intervals, there’d be a pause in the shooting so the makeup team could apply some new faux injuries. But she also received some real ones; Hedren’s willpower finally collapsed when a bird ripped a hole into her lower eyelid. The injury provoked a full-blown nervous breakdown and, at her doctor’s insistence, production was forced to shut down for a week to allow her to recover.
In the years since the film's release, Hedren has also spoken openly about being subjected to yet another harrowing experience while The Birds was being filmed: According to the actress, she was sexually harassed by Hitchcock. "I think he was an extremely sad character," Hedren said in 2012. "We are dealing with a brain here that was an unusual genius, and evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people that were totally unsuspecting." Hedren's allegations were later dramatized in The Girl, a controversial biopic that premiered in 2012.
9. MATTEL CELEBRATED THE FILM’S 45TH ANNIVERSARY WITH A BARBIE DOLL.
In 2008, the toy company unveiled a commemorative Barbie doll based on Melanie Daniels. The figurine was a dead ringer for Hedren, right down to the green Edith Head suit. It also came with some unusual accessories: Three detachable crows, each one posed in an “attack position” in the original packaging.
10. A MADE-FOR-TV SEQUEL CAME OUT IN 1994.
The Birds II: Land's End premiered on Showtime on March 14, 1994, more than 30 years after the original film debuted in theaters. Hedren makes an appearance in this low-budget sequel, but instead of reprising the role of Melanie, she’s cast as an entirely new character named Helen. Unlike the original film, which took place in California’s Bodega Bay, the setting of this installment is a fictional island on the east coast. It was directed by Rick Rosenthal, who was so dissatisfied with the end product that he used the pseudonym Alan Smithee in place of his real name during the opening credits. Hedren isn’t too crazy about The Birds II either; "It's absolutely horrible," she once said of the film. "It embarrasses me horribly."