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Research is for the Birds: LSU Scientist Solves Mystery of Hitchcock's Film

LSU research has recently taken its place in cinematic history by explaining the real cause behind one of the most famous moments on film.


According to Sibel Bargu of LSU's School of the Coast & Environment, Pseudo-nitzschia is an alga that produces the neurotoxin domoic acid, which binds with receptors in the brain to cause confusion, disorientation and other symptoms, even coma and death.
Photo courtesy of Sibel Bargu

Many people don’t realize that the iconic scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” was partially inspired by a real-life event. In 1961, near the north shore of Monterey Bay, Calif., thousands of birds were found flying erratically, running into things and dying on the streets. After reading about this bizarre incident, Hitchcock called the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper to get more information about the strange event before producing the famous film, which was released in 1963.

Sibel Bargu of LSU’s School of the Coast & Environment, along with her team of researchers from different institutes, recently proved that toxic algae called Pseudo-nitzschia was most likely responsible for the birds crazed behavior in 1961 and thus spurred a cinematic legend.

Pseudo-nitzschia is an alga that produces the neurotoxin, domoic acid, which binds with receptors in the brain to cause confusion, disorientation and other symptoms, even coma and death,” said Bargu.  “By studying Scripps Institution of Oceanography archival samples of zooplankton that would have fed off of the toxic algae, we were able to prove that Pseudo-nitzschia was packed in the animals’ stomachs, and thus the toxin was highly available in the waters off California during that time in birds’ prey.”

Since the originally recorded incident, several relatively large-scale seabird and marine mammal kills have occurred with Pseudo-nitzschia as the culprit, including a mass poisoning of brown pelicans in the same area.


Bargu, along with her team of researchers from different institutes, recently proved that toxic algae called Pseudo-nitzschia was most likely responsible for the birds' crazed behavior in 1961.
Photo courtesy of Sibel Bargu

“Our study shows that toxic Pseudo-nitzschia levels in 1961 were similar to the level found during the more recent events,” said Bargu.  “We believe that this particular algal bloom was in response to the slowing of bottom water upwelling paired with the increase of ocean surface water inflow that probably led to the development of warm-water, low-wind conditions. This situation prolonged seabird activity in the area but also most likely led to domoic acid-induced poisoning, as well.”

Did you know?

“The Birds” was originally adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier.

In 1987, more than 100 Canadians became ill after eating mussels harvested from Prince William Island contaminated by Pseudo-nitzschia. Four elderly citizens eventually died from complications associated with the original illness.