"Why do birds suddenly appear / Every time you are near?"
The Carpenters knew. Those birds just wanted to get close to Melanie Daniels.
But, what do these avian aggressors represent? Everyone has an opinion, so we'll help you navigate the maze of all of the explanations.
Revenge of the Birds
The most popular interpretation is that the birds represent nature, red in beak and claw. Of course, we're talking about the destructive, awesome power of nature, against which we're totally helpless. "I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable," Mrs. Bundy the ornithologist declares. "Why, if that happened, we wouldn't stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?" Friendly little birds who trick instead of tweet … and suddenly, the world is upside down.
Melanie suggests that maybe nature is getting its revenge:
MELANIE: Maybe they're all protecting the species. Maybe they're tired of being shot at and roasted in ovens and—
But, she's the worst offender. "As a representative of animal abusers (we first see her wearing a fur coat), Melanie is an enemy of nature," writes film critic Gus Cileone. "Now she is punished by the formerly abused creatures, who show the humans what can happen when the rules of respectful coexistence are broken." (Source)
In this way, the film can be read as an allegory of humanity's helplessness in the face of natural forces. Here's what critic Brandie Ashe has to say:
Hitchcock's films seem to take an immense amount of pleasure in ripping away the veneers of civilization and exposing the frailties underneath. There is both a literal and a figurative breakdown of society in this film: the birds physically destroy the things (possessions) that separate animal from human, while at the same time decimating the established way of life and snapping the bonds of various relationships between people and, at large, the world around them. (Source)
That last scene of the very "civilized" Melanie being led like a zombie to the car, fur coat draped over her, says it all.
Nature wins this round.
Rise of the Machines
Yep, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther thought that the whole bird scenario might be a stand-in for the future, when it will be machines, not nature, that run the show. Regardless, we'll be equally helpless as we become nothing more than slaves to destructive technology. (Source)
Apparently, we weren't the first ones to think so.
It's not such a crazy idea if you think about what was going on in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s. The film was released in 1963, just a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the midst of the Cold War Era. It was a terrifying time for Americans. Not knowing what kind of nuclear buildup was going on in the Soviet Union, people were building bomb shelters and seeing Communists under the bed.
During the Missile Crisis, particularly, there was a fear that atomic bombs could come raining down at any moment; schoolchildren were taught to "duck and cover" under their desks in case of attack. (Yep, that would prevent nuclear incineration.) The scene of the kids running out of the school being chased by dive-bombing birds reflected some very real scenarios that were keeping parents awake at night.
People were scared to death about disaster that could come down from the skies.
Furies and Harpies
Remember the Furies, those Hades-dwelling goddesses of vengeance who went around wreaking havoc on people and cities, and for whom every day was a bad hair day? Well, they're also candidates for explaining The Birds' birds. (Source)
You didn't have to worry about the Furies if you were a good person, but if you weren't, the Furies would relentlessly torture you by driving you mad. The Harpies were their evil relatives, half-woman and half-bird—they snatched people from the earth and carried them off to the Furies.
The Furies sure did a job on Melanie.
In Greek mythology, some of their least favorite things were children who were nasty to their parents and hosts who were rude to guests—anyone, really, who violated the proper social order of things. They were often depicted as ugly, winged women with snakes for hair. (Source)
We'll take the birds any day.
Hitchcock loved to play with Freudian concepts. According to Freud, all little boys love their mommies and want to replace their daddies in her affections—that's just normal. Freud called this stage of development the Oedipal stage, after the Greek myth of Oedipus, the Theban king who unintentionally killed his father and married his mother. It lasts from about ages 4-7. It's when those little boys grow up and still are overly attached to their mommies that the problems start.
In The Birds, Hitchcock gives Annie Hayworth a speech where she brings up, then denies, the Oedipal nature of Mitch's relationship with his mother.
ANNIE: When I got back to San Francisco, I spent days trying to figure out just what I'd done to displease [Lydia].
MELANIE: And what had you done?
ANNIE: Nothing! I simply existed. So, what was the answer? A jealous woman, right? A clinging, possessive mother. Wrong. With all due respect to Oedipus, I don't think that was the case at all.
Annie thinks Lydia is just afraid of being alone. But, there's a lot of strange stuff going on with Mitch and his mother. He calls her "darling." She stares daggers at Melanie when she first lays eyes on her. Stuff like that.
All of this led many film critics to see the bird attacks as symbolic of this distorted sexual dynamic between Mitch, Lydia, and Melanie. (Source) Melanie gets attacked for the first time on her way back from her secret visit to the Brenner home, and it sure seems that the attacks get more frequent as Melanie gets closer to Mitch. Oh, and Annie gets killed because she'd also posed a threat to Lydia.
There's lots of evidence that the birds were acting strange even before Melanie's arrival in Bodega Bay: we even see them massing in San Francisco as Melanie walks into the pet shop. But, the plot develops as if the bird attacks are following Melanie and punishing her for her sexual desire for Mitch.
The Oedipal icing on the cake is the gruesome scenes of bird victims with their eyes plucked out. After Oedipus realized that he'd unknowingly married his own mother, he gouged out his own eyes.
So, is Hitchcock toying with us by putting this juicy explanation out there?
Even the chickens get into the act in this film: they're on a hunger strike, apparently. If you know anything about chickens, you know that if they're not eating, all is definitely not right with the world.
Chicks, hens, birds—all of these are slang terms for women. And Mitch, the sole major male character in the film, is surrounded by a flock of women—Annie, Lydia, and Cathy—all vying for his attention and affection, all trying to decide who's who in the Brenner circle pecking order. In this interpretation, the birds represent the women and the chaos that ensues when Melanie arrives and threatens to disrupt the balance. (Source) The restless, aggressive birds are just mirroring the tension and anxiety that's roiling the relationships among the main characters.
"It's the end of the world!" shouts the drunk in the diner. He starts quoting Bible prophecies about mankind being punished with destruction for its sins.
Obviously, the avian avengers are the agents of that punishment. And, what sins could those be? Lust, spoiling the environment, mistreating animals, envy, greed, pride—they're all here, but no one believes the guy's drunken religious apocalyptic rantings.
In fact, most of the folks in the diner are in denial about how bad the attacks really are. In the Bible, people never want to believe the prophecies of doom. But, Hitchcock does tease us into believing that the bird attacks are retribution for something—even if they're not a sign of the apocalypse.
None of the Above
In spite of all of these juicy theories about who these birds are and what they represent, the film never really explains why the attacks are happening. Is it the lustful Melanie? Is it Lydia's jealousy? Have the birds just had it with being caged, shot, and eaten? (Think of those fried chicken dinners in the diner.)
At the end of the day, we're trying to assign meaning to something that maybe has none.
Maybe the birds aren't exacting revenge for being mistreated by humans; maybe it's not the apocalypse; maybe they don't care about Melanie's desire or Lydia's jealousy. "Here is a film that provides no answers and no escape. Chaos reigns from top to tail," writes Xan Brooks of The Guardian. (Source) At the end of the film, everyone is still in danger, the birds seem even more numerous and in control, and no one has the slightest idea why.
Screenwriter Evan Hunter scoffed at the idea that the birds symbolized the Furies or some apocalyptic vision. "I think Hitch is putting on the world when he pretends there is anything meaningful about The Birds," said Hunter. "We were trying to scare the hell out of people. Period." (Source)
Don't even try to understand it—it's futile.
And that's what makes this film so terrifying.