Bird Naming, Nature Taming, and Reality

The American Ornithological Society has decided to address a very serious problem in the bird world: the supposed unethical naming of bird species. These crusaders want us to know that it’s high time to do something about the English names of birds—particularly since so many are named after dead, white, male Europeans, and many others may give offense to certain “off limits” groups of people.

“Names have power and power can be for the good or it can for the bad,” according to Colleen Handel, president of the American Ornithological Society. “We’ve come to understand that there are certain names that have offensive or derogatory connotations that cause pain to people, and that it is important to change those, to remove those as barriers to their participation in the world of birds.” 

Although there is beauty to find in birds and birdwatching, we should remember that not all birds are created equal. And nature is not interested in our opinions about it or our names for its various parts. Nature defies our attempts to master it with categories; it doesn’t care what we call it. Nature just is.

Think of those annoying blue jays (Lat. Cyanocitta cristata). They can be quite aggressive, attacking smaller birds, even to the point of decapitating them! There is no fun in watching blue jays because all they do is steal the feed you put out for the beautiful American Goldfinch (Lat. Spinus tristis), or the cute Black-capped Chickadee (Lat. Poecile atricapillus).

“When Birds Attack” sounds like it could have been a 1990s reality television show on Fox but attack they do, and this is the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Tippi Hedren (who probably has a different opinion of birds than the American Ornithological Society) plays Melanie Daniels, a wealthy San Francisco socialite, who rarely gets close to any man, and sees every relationship as a conquest.

Melanie happens to bump into Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer who works in San Francisco and spends weekends in Bodega Bay with his mother and much younger sister. Melanie pretends to be a saleswoman at a pet store, and sells Mitch a pair of lovebirds. They’re not in the store yet, so she decides to deliver the birds personally to Mitch once they are available.

Melanie drives to Bodega Bay, completely unprepared for what is about to happen to her. She is in a way, an “alpha female,” and not really that much interested in having a long-term relationship with Mitch. Her most prominent desire is to play a game of power until, presumably, someone loses.

Melanie may know how to play male/female games but she did not count on Mitch’s possessive mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Mother’s love can be beautiful but there is something seriously creepy about this particular mother-son relationship. Mitch refers to her as “darling” and “dear,” and Lydia’s deep red lipstick seems completely out of place on a woman whose hair is gray.

Melanie has upset the proverbial apple cart by coming to Bodega Bay. A sea gull attacks her almost immediately upon her arrival, and after that, the mounting horror of thousands of birds attacking the inhabitants of Bodega Bay becomes a reality. Nobody can quite comprehend why these birds are acting in such an aggressive manner but there really is no time for questions. The only thing to do is to escape and hide, hoping that there will be a lull in the attacks.

As the fear and anxiety level about the birds is rising, Melanie’s intended erotic game with Mitch turns into a competition with his mother. Melanie visibly hates her, yet she seeks her approval. It’s not merely the bird catastrophe that looms over these residents of Bodega Bay but also this existential catastrophe for all parties involved: Melanie, Mitch, and Lydia. Mitch may be a suave, masculine, alpha male, who humors his mother’s Freudian possessiveness, but he is still essentially defined in relation to his mother.

It’s no wonder that nature plays a big part in Hitchcock’s film. As Camille Paglia astutely observes in her book, The Birds (BFI Film Classics Series), “… Hitchcock finds woman captivating but dangerous. She allures by nature, but she is chief artificer in civilization, a magic fabricator of persona whose very smile is an arc of deception … domestication was to be his [a man’s] fate too, as he fell under architecturally reinforced female control. The Birds charts the return of the repressed, a release of the primitive forces of sex and appetite that have been subdued but never fully tamed.”

Everyone in the film is fighting nature, literally and figuratively. Melanie has entered a relationship dynamic that has completely disrupted her socialite level of comfort. She is a prisoner of the island, a bird in a cage, at the mercy of Mitch and Lydia. Is a potential daughter-in-law supposed to be a threat or a welcome addition to the family? Is such a relationship “natural?” Ultimately, the only way for Melanie to “win” is to submit. It’s only after she is ruthlessly attacked by the birds, in her physical and mental state of complete disarray, that peace and calm are reached. When Mitch and Lydia help her out of the house that’s been infested with birds, Melanie looks like a patient bound for the lunatic asylum, about to be caged forever. Has she reached the potential of what nature has intended for her?

Then, of course, there are the birds. They are dinosaurs that still live among us. Some are cute, but what happens when thousands of sparrows attack? One sparrow is beautiful, hundreds surging upon you at once bring with them the potential for death. As Werner Herzog said so well when interviewed in a 1982 documentary about the troubled production of his film Fitzcarraldo within the jungle of Peru, “Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away.”

But Herzog also understands the importance of bird watching. Commenting on A.J. Baker’s 1967 book, The Peregrine, Herzog notes the strange delirium that comes from attempting to have a dialogue with nature by observing the falcon every day. He compares it to extasis, stepping outside of oneself. But this kind of transcendence can come at a price: the exhilaration and beauty of nature can quickly turn to horror as Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels will attest. Ultimately, the birds are not interested in what names we assign to them because nature is merciless in its beauty.  

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