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What got into Hitchcock's 'Birds'?

An acid produced by toxic algae may have caused the Monterey Bay incident that is said to have inspired the movie.

January 08, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times

Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 horror flick "The Birds," in which feathered maniacs attack the residents of Bodega Bay, Calif., over the course of several days, never explained the birds' homicidal intent. But marine scientist David Garrison of the National Science Foundation has a theory about the real-life events that may have inspired the legendary film.


FOR THE RECORD:
"The Birds": An article in the Jan. 8 Section A about unusual bird behavior and the film "The Birds" quoted marine scientist David Garrison of the National Science Foundation speculating that Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 movie was inspired by an actual event. A 1961 incident may have provided Hitchcock with research material for the movie, but the script itself is based on a Daphne du Maurier story published in 1952 in which a flock of seabirds attacks a community in coastal England.

Garrison investigated a strange event in 1991 that caused birds around Monterey Bay to act bizarre and die. He identified the culprit as domoic acid, which was produced by toxic algae off the Pacific Coast. Those acid-making algae were consumed by fish and shellfish, which were in turn gobbled by birds, who couldn't effectively rid the toxin from their systems.

"There were reports of pelicans and cormorants wandering around drunk and throwing up anchovies," said Garrison, who is based in Arlington, Va.

Domoic acid was probably responsible for another instance of strange bird behavior reported in 1961 around Monterey Bay, when Hitchcock was said to be vacationing nearby, Garrison said. The filmmaker reportedly asked to have a copy of the newspaper sent to him, the scientist added.

No link has been firmly established. But Sibel Bargu, a biological oceanographer at Louisiana State University, is following up on the Hitchcock angle by looking at zooplankton samples saved from the 1960s.

"They are filter-feeding, so we're assuming they'll be like a trash can — whatever was in the water was in their stomachs," Bargu said.

Bargu said she remembers clearly when "The Birds" was played her home in Turkey when she was a child.

"They were showing the movie and didn't let me go into the room because it was so scary," she recalled. "I always wanted to watch that movie, because it was forbidden to me."

amina.khan@latimes.com

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