How Alfred Hitchcock Brought The Birds' Titular Terrors To Life

One of Alfred Hitchcock's most beloved films also happens to be one of the most technically challenging productions; in the days before CGI, orchestrating a creature feature was a daunting task — but not too daunting for a filmmaker known for pioneering storytelling techniques. "The Birds" is Hitchcock's thrilling 1963 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1952 story of the same name, concerning a series of sudden, violent bird attacks on the people of the sleepy seaside town of Bodega Bay, California.

A collection of interviews with the Master of Suspense dropped in 2003, containing a fascinating conversation between the director and Bruce Lane about the training involved with the feathered antagonists. The script called for birds to orchestrate mass assaults, dive at windows and, in one of the most impeccably-constructed suspense scenes of all time, assemble and attack schoolchildren. Hitchcock credits good trainers and good old movie magic for the stupefying result:

Training? Well, we had a bird trainer and he was able to train a certain number of seagulls, and I think about thirty or forty well-trained ravens and crows. A lot of it of course was double and triple printing. In fact, the last shot in "The Birds" was composed of sixteen separate pieces of film.

The last shot the "Psycho" director refers to is a rather bleak one (but it could have been darker): The battered final survivors make their way from a besieged Bodega Bay home to a car, fleeing to San Francisco past the watchful eyes of hundreds, maybe thousands of winged creatures. Within that constructed final shot, as Hitchcock tells it, there is not a single stuffed bird, but five hundred rented ducks spray-painted gray. "We started off with chickens," he muses, "but the neck movement gave them away."

'I don't trust them'

"The Birds" showcases feathered foes of many kinds. Seagulls and crows descend upon Bodega Bay and star Tippi Hedren, who allegedly had a rough shoot of a climactic bird attack scene as retaliation for her rejecting the director's sexual advances. At one point in the film, seasoned ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) vocally estimates 5,750,000,000 birds occupy the U.S. alone, and so the numerous attack sequences in the movie had to portray a sizable fraction of that number. Production used a mixture of live, trained birds, and mechanical ones — later bird-centric monster movies like Birdemic underlined how difficult it is to get realistic-looking bird frenzies on the big screen. So how did the mind behind "North By Northwest" approach that? Hitchcock tells Lane:

We had men on ladders, and the gulls were trained to be thrown and land on the flat table top nearby the camera. And, for example, the little girl with a gull at the birthday party: we built a little platform on her shoulder and a gull was put there, but its beak was bound, and she had a little wire and as she ran up the dunes she was told to pull her hand up and down so that you got the effect of its pecking.

Asked why he opts for trained seagulls over wild ones, the English filmmaker voiced concerns about a lack of control. "The wild one may go half way there and say, 'Where the hell am I going?' and turn 'round and come back. I don't trust them."