By RANDAL C. HILL
It was a scene of pure pandemonium, a flock of birds crashing into houses in a quiet California beach town, the crazed creatures smashing windows and attacking the residents whose frantic screams matched the agonizing shrieks of the interlopers themselves.
A scene from the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock horror movie The Birds, right? Actually, no. This event occurred for real two years before the great director’s now-classic release.
Following the 1960 success of Psycho, Hitchcock set about making a film meant to outdo what many critics have dubbed Hollywood’s first true horrorfest. The Birds would be loosely based on a 1952 story of the same name by English writer Daphne du Maurier. In her novella, a British farmhand comes under an unexplained kamikaze-style attack by seagulls.
Hitchcock’s project was well underway when he heard about a bizarre phenomenon on the Central California coastal town of Capitola. An article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel described hordes of disoriented birds divebombing the town in the early morning hours of August 18, 1961, crashing into homes and cars and spewing half-digested fish onto lawns and streets. During the melee, some residents had stepped outside, flashlights in hand, only to find the birds rushing toward the light. One woman said half a dozen birds had tried to infiltrate her home. Eight residents reported being bitten. When dawn broke, the dead and dying creatures littered the town.
Understandably, the question nobody could answer at the time was “Why did this happen?”
Hitchcock phoned the Sentinel‘s editor and asked for a copy of the front-page story. The Hollywood icon would later utilize portions of that account when he had his scriptwriter alter some scenes for the upcoming feature.
Nobody understood the reason for that night’s attack in Capitola until three decades later, when it was decided that brown pelicans and cormorants along the Central California coast were falling ill due to being poisoned from domonic acid, the result of a toxin produced by a sporadically recurring red algae.
It appears that this toxin had also been the culprit behind the 1961 disaster. In that situation, the avian victims were sooty shearwaters, large brown-and-gray seagull-like birds that annually migrate from the southern hemisphere. The tainted food chain along the shore had moved from algae to fish to birds, the tragic results for the sooty shearwaters being brain damage, disorientation, seizures, and, eventually, death.
The hapless birds in Capitola hadn’t been evil or angry or murderous that morning—they had simply been sick and confused.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The Birds could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made.” His 1963 apocalyptic movie focused on sudden and unexplained vicious bird attacks on the people of the small coastal town of Bodega Bay, California. (Capitola lies 145 miles to the south.)
An urban legend once claimed that the Capitola incident had been the basis for Hitchcock’s classic. That was untrue; in a textbook case of art imitating life, it had all been a matter of coincidence. ISI