Preening is the process by which ducks groom themselves—getting rid of dust, dirt, and parasites from their feathers, while also helping to waterproof their outer layer. During preening, ducks spread a waxy, waterproof oil secreted by their uropygial gland, which is located near their tails.
4. The amount of daylight affects how many eggs a hen produces.
The more daylight there is, the more eggs a hen produces. Farmers who raise ducks will often turn to artificial lighting in order to give their hens about 17 hours of light a day.
5. Some ducks have expensive taste.
The omnivorous birds also tend to consume gravel, small stones, or sand—not for the nutritional value, but so they can store the substances in their gizzards and use the rough textures to break down food. In 1911, according to Ducks.org, gold prospectors flocked to Nebraska after hunters discovered small nuggets of the precious metal in the gizzards of ducks they had shot. However, the fortune-seekers never were able to locate where the gold originally came from.
Very rarely, a severe weather event will trigger a mass migration known as a “grand passage.” There have been only three recorded instances of grand passages: one in 1940, one in 1955, and the most recent in 1995, when a reported 90 million waterfowl migrated from Canada after a severe cold front set in, causing major problems at airports along the birds' route.
8. Good luck trying to sneak up on one.
Ducks are incredibly vigilant creatures. According to a study done by scientists at Indiana State University, Mallard ducks stay alert even when they doze. While snoozing in groups, the ducks stationed as "guards" on the outside sleep with one eye—generally the eye facing away from the group—open. In doing so, they control which side of the brain stays awake. It's not surprising, then, that ducks are capable of sensing threats in the environment in under a second.
9. Ducklings grow up fast.
Unlike the young of many other animals, ducklings achieve independence almost immediately after hatching. Babies are born with their eyes wide open, and already possess the layer of down feathers necessary to stay warm. By the time they're two months old, ducklings have usually learned to fly.
10. One myth about them has been debunked (many times over).
Humans are very preoccupied with flight. We've spent decades and billions of dollars refining air travel; we often dream about flying without the aid of technology. It's little wonder many of us find ourselves fascinated with birds, who make the act seem so effortless. In honor of National Bird Day January 5, we thought we'd take a closer look at some facts behind our avian friends.
1. THEY HAVE A CURIOUS DESIRE TO COVER THEMSELVES IN ANTS.
While we know a lot about birds, we don’t always understand their motivations. One example: “anting,” or the practice of covering themselves in living or dead ants. Cardinals are prone to the practice, allowing ants to crawl around their bodies or stuffing ant corpses into their feathers. One theory is that the formic acid secreted by the insects helps rid birds of lice; ants may also help clean up dried oils left over from preening. If ants aren't handy, birds have also been known to use cigarette butts, beetles, and coffee.
2. SOME HUMMINGBIRDS WEIGH LESS THAN A PENNY.
Most people realize hummingbirds are pretty slight of stature: Their tiny bodies allow them to take flight quickly. While there are over 300 types of hummingbirds, the smallest species, the Bee hummingbird, weighs in at just 2 grams—.5 grams less than a U.S. penny.
3. WOODPECKERS PECK WITH PURPOSE.
Contrary to what cartoons may have taught you, woodpeckers don’t drill into trees for the sole purpose of annoying humans. Acorn woodpeckers use their beaks to hollow out wood structures so they can store acorns, almonds, hazelnuts, and other sustenance.
4. THEY’LL ATTACK THEIR REFLECTION.
Birds have been known to tap on residential windows. It’s not to get your attention: Many migratory birds looking to put down roots for the warmer months get territorial. When they see themselves reflected in a window, they can mistake it for a rival bird and begin pecking. Some homeowners put up anti-reflective material to prevent birds from pestering themselves.
5. PIGEONS ARE ART CRITICS.
Several studies have looked at whether pigeons can differentiate between the distinct visual stimuli found in paintings. In one study, the birds were presented with “good” and “bad” children’s artwork. Positive reinforcement was used when the birds pecked at the “good” artworks and could later identify previously-unseen paintings that met a human standard for quality. Another study found that pigeons could tell a Picasso from a Monet. Researchers believe the birds can use color and pattern cues to tell two images apart.
6. THEY CAN NAP IN MID-AIR.
Some birds take very long commutes during migrating season—and like human travelers, they’re able to nap in mid-air. For a study published in Nature Communications, researchers attached a brain-wave activity sensor to frigatebirds and noted the birds spent some time asleep while "cruising" in higher air currents and altitudes.
7. THERE’S A REASON THEIR POOP IS WHITE.
The creamy white splatter on your windshield is a result of a bird’s hyper-efficient waste system. Rather than have separate intestinal and urinary tracts, birds eliminate their waste from their cloaca, a catch-all orifice that allows for reproductive sex and egg-laying. The white is actually uric acid, which tinges the elimination white. The small brown center represents stool.
Birds may not find toots as funny as humans do, but they still make use of them. The Australian Bassian thrush farts toward the ground, with the noxious smell helping to unearth worms and other insect prey.
9. CANYON WRENS BUILD PATIOS FOR THEIR NESTS.
The canyon wren isn’t always satisfied with a nest made of foraged materials. Like a little home improvement host, the wren will use rocks to build a tiny, patio-like surface around the nest. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why they do this, but it may have something to do with keeping nests dry or attracting the opposite sex.
10. THEY COULD BE COMPETITIVE EATERS.
Your backyard may be home to a mini Nathan’s competitive eating contest every single day. Many species of birds chow down on an impressive number of insects, with the Baltimore oriole able to munch 17 caterpillars a minute; a house wren can pass on 500 spiders to its offspring in a single afternoon.
11. HUMMINGBIRDS CAN’T WALK.
There are some compromises that have to be made when you’re a bird that can fly backwards. To reduce drag, hummingbirds have very tiny and non-locomoting feet. Their legs allow them to perch and shuffle sideways a bit, but they’re not designed for long walks.
12. NOT ALL BEAKS ARE CREATED EQUAL.
A bird’s beak will vary depending on what nature has instructed it to do. Cone-shaped beaks are perfect for cracking nuts and seeds; a hummingbird’s long bill is ideal for sipping nectar. Birds of prey often have hooked beaks that are perfect for tearing into flesh and causing fatal wounds to the neck of their next meal.
13. LITTLE BLUE HERONS HAVE A BUILT-IN GROOMING COMB.
Whether you consider the heron a backyard bird or not may depend on whether you have a pond, but if you spot one of these fish-chompers, try to take note of their middle toe: it has a serrated edge to it that the heron uses to groom and scratch itself.
14. CROWS CAN RECOGNIZE FACES.
If you think your local murder of crows is out to get you, it may not be paranoia. Research conducted at the University of Washington in 2008 demonstrated that the bird is able to recognize faces and hold a grudge when provoked. In the study, scientists donned a caveman mask and then trapped crows (humanely, of course) before banding and setting them free. When the researchers walked the campus in the mask, the crows circled and vocally scolded their suspected captor.
15. KILLDEER FAKE INJURIES TO FOOL PREDATORS.
The killdeer, which is found across North America, is the avian equivalent of a scam artist in a neck brace. The species will feign being injured or crippled in order to lure predators toward them and away from their nest of offspring. When the predator gets close enough, the killdeer miraculously “recovers” and beats a hasty retreat.
16. BLUE JAYS ARE HELPING RESTORE OAK TREES.
The vibrant blue birds are so fond of burying acorns and other nuts that the species is being credited with an uptick of oak trees sprouting in North America. When they’re not busy being conservationists, they don’t mind if you leave a few peanuts out: They can crack the shell by holding it steady with their feet.
17. NORTHERN CARDINALS ARE EARLY RISERS.
These bright red birds don’t let much of the day go to waste: People with residential bird feeders report that the northern cardinal is the first bird up in the morning and one of the last to disappear at night. They rarely get the worm, though: These birds prefer seeds.
18. THERE’S A REASON THEY DON’T FALL OFF BRANCHES WHILE SLEEPING.
Most birds not only sleep standing up, they do it while perched on a thin tree branch. Why don’t they fall off? The flexor tendons in their legs make an involuntary contraction when they settle in, keeping their feet locked in place during sleep.
19. BLUE JAYS CAN MIMIC THE SOUND OF A HAWK.
The vocal ability of birds is renowned, particularly the elocution of parrots. But the more pervasive blue jay has a pretty good parlor trick: It can mimic the sound of a red-shouldered hawk. In addition to terrifying humans, the noise may help to scare off fretful birds from their territory.
20. BLUE JAYS AREN’T ACTUALLY BLUE.
Their name is a bit of a misnomer. A blue jay’s feathers are actually brown. But thanks to light scattering, jays and other blue-tinged birds will give off the appearance of being bolder in color. Blue light doesn’t pass through the structure of the feather—it’s reflected. It only works one way, though, so if you turn a feather around, you’ll see its natural brown color.
21. ROBINS HAVE A SWEET TOOTH.
Worms make up the majority of their diet, but robins don’t mind if you leave out a dessert tray. The birds are partial to pastry dough, fruit cake, and coconut cake.
22. THEY KNOW HOW TO COOL OFF.
In warmer climates, birds beat the heat by spreading their wings and allowing for better air circulation. They’ll also flutter their neck muscles—called gular fluttering—to expel body heat.
23. SOME OF THEM USE TOOLS.
In a sure sign that Birdemic may one day be considered a documentary, some species of birds have been shown to use tools in order to make their lives easier. In North America, the brown-headed nuthatch will take a piece of tree bark and use it to pry off other bark in search of insects. American robins will use twigs to sweep aside leaves for the same purpose.
24. HUMMINGBIRDS ARE ALWAYS STARVING.
With fierce metabolisms brought on by constant movement, hummingbirds are always in search of nourishment—they require so much of it, in fact, that they’re perpetually a few hours away from starving to death. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will eat up to three times their body weight a day.
25. THEY’LL NEVER BE MOVIE STARS.
American migratory bird species are hardly ever depicted in movies thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that prevents domestic birds from being bought or sold for commercial purposes. If you spot a backyard bird in film or on a show, it’s either an imported species or a computer effect. To see a jaybird, you’ll have to turn off the TV and look out a window.
There’s an old saying in Hollywood: You’re only as good as your last movie. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock unleashed Psycho, his most financially successful film and a trendsetting horror classic. Just when it seemed as though there was nothing left for him to prove, he climbed right back into the director’s chair. Hitchcock’s next picture was The Birds, a technical marvel against which all creature features—from Jaws to Cujo—are now measured.
1. IT WAS THE THIRD DAPHNE DU MAURIER STORY THAT HITCHCOCK ADAPTED.
Daphne du Maurier's work has been adapted dozens of times for film and television projects, and Alfred Hitchcock was a particular fan of the London-born author and playwright. Over the course of his career, he adapted three of du Maurier's stories, beginning with his 1939 film version of her thrilling novel Jamaica Inn. In 1940, he took Rebecca—du Maurier’s gothic masterwork which continues to sell 50,000 copies a year—and converted it into an Oscar-winning drama starring Laurence Olivier.
In 1952, du Maurier published The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories. One of the book’s highlights is a chilling tale called “The Birds.” An environmentally-conscious fable, it’s about a population of birds who start attacking humans after a harsh winter depletes their natural food supply. Hitchcock liked the basic premise and wanted to put “The Birds” on film. However, his adaptation would not be a faithful retelling.
Once Hitchcock bought the rights to du Maurier’s avian yarn, he hired screenwriter Evan Hunter to pen a script. Hunter remembered that, during an early telephone conversation, the director told him “We’re getting rid of the du Maurier story entirely. We’re just keeping the title and the notion of birds attacking people.” The result was a screenplay Hunter described as “a screwball comedy that turns into terror.”
2. AN AVIAN HOSPITAL WAS BUILT ON THE SET.
Through a meticulous positive reinforcement process, animal handler Ray Berwick trained hundreds of live birds for use in Hitchcock’s movie. Most of these were wild-caught crows, ravens, seagulls, and sparrows. Berwick oversaw an entire bird-wrangling team whose members spent a huge amount of time corralling their feathered co-workers between takes. To ensure that none of the animals was harmed, the American Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) assumed an active role in the production. Under their watchful eye, the crew set up a makeshift avian hospital.
“We actually built an aviary onto the set for birds that had been hurt or injured,” Veronica Cartwright, who played Cathy in the film, said. Another measure taken in the name of animal welfare was the construction of a large net, which the special effects team draped over the living room set; this kept the birds from flying haphazardly through the rest of the studio.
The wrangling team had plenty of other tricks up their sleeves as well. Sometimes, to get their feathered friends to fly toward a camera, the crew would suspend a hunk of meat beneath the lens. In one interview, Hitchcock noted that a lot of prep work went into the shot in which a seagull latches onto a girl at a birthday party, harassing her as she tries to run off. “[We] built a little platform on her shoulder and a gull was put there,” Hitchcock explained. For safety reasons, its beak was bound shut with wire.
3. ONE RAVEN STRONGLY DISLIKED ROD TAYLOR.
Like everyone else in the film, Rod Taylor’s character—Mitch Brenner—had to withstand a barrage of avian attacks. One particular bird really had it in for Taylor. There was a captive raven named Archie who seemingly went out of his way to attack the actor, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“Every morning, if we were on the set together, he’d come over and … bite me," Taylor revealed in Universal’s DVD documentary All About the Birds. "I hated him and he hated me.” It got to the point where Taylor started making inquiries about Archie’s whereabouts as part of his daily, on-set ritual. “I’d walk in and say, ‘Is Archie working today?’ And they’d say, ‘Uh, I don’t think so Rod. I think we’re working with seagulls.’ And out of the rafters would come Archie. [He] hated me and would lie in wait for me.”
4. HITCHCOCK’S DOGS MADE A CAMEO.
He’s remembered as both the master of suspense and an early adopter of cinematic Easter eggs. Alfred Hitchcock loved to make brief, on-screen appearances in his own films. By 1963, audiences had come to expect these little cameos. The Birds throws one at us when Melanie (Tippi Hedren) ducks into a pet store near the beginning of the picture. As she enters the place, you can see Hitchcock leading a pair of small dogs out. These pooches were Stanley and Geoffrey, the director’s lovable Sealyham Terriers. (An admirer of this breed, he’d previously owned another male named Mr. Jenkins.)
5. ONE OF MICKEY MOUSE’S CO-CREATORS WORKED AS A SPECIAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR.
Real, flesh-and-blood birds share the screen with a few mechanical ones in the film. Additionally, the movie relied heavily on matte work, a process whereby images from two separate reels of film are combined. This enabled footage of angry birds to be paired with separate shots depicting frightened actors. To help execute these effects, Hitchcock reached out to Ub Iwerks, an animator who’d been working for Walt Disney since 1924 and had helped create the Mickey Mouse character in 1927.
Renowned throughout Hollywood as a visual effects wizard, Iwerks was a self-taught expert on matte techniques. Disney agreed to hire him out to Universal so that he could put his knowledge to good use for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Iwerks was rewarded with an Oscar nod when The Birds was nominated for Best Special Effects in 1964. (It lost to the big-budget epic Cleopatra.)
6. A RESTAURATEUR IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA LET THE CREW USE HIS BUILDING—ON TWO SMALL CONDITIONS.
While much of the movie was filmed on studio lots, Hitchcock also filmed a large percentage on location in scenic Bodega Bay, California. Located 65 miles north of San Francisco, the small village offered some big advantages. “In order to get the photography of the birds in the air, we needed an area with low land, not high mountains or a lot of trees,” Hitchcock told Cinefantastique. “In a pictorial sense, it was vital to have nothing on the ground but sand, so that we had the entire sky to play with.”
Bodega Bay and the neighboring communities of Bodega and Bodega Head had everything the director was looking for, so Hitchcock employed all three places as locations. Several of the diner scenes were filmed at a Bodega Bay eatery called the Tides Restaurant. Then-owner Mitch Zankich struck a bargain with the filmmakers. “[He] told the locations manager that he would let them film his place for free if they would call the community in the movie Bodega Bay and if the hero was called Mitch,” Hazel Mitchell, who’d worked at the Tides as a waitress in those days, claimed. Zankich’s wishes were granted, and to sweeten the deal, he was given an on-screen appearance with a line of dialogue. “In the scene on the dock, when Tippi Hedren is attacked by the bird when she is in the skiff, a man asks Rod Taylor, ‘What happened, Mitch?’ And that was Mitch Zankich,” Mitchell said.
7. AN ALTERNATE ENDING WOULD’VE INVOLVED THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE.
Genre films have been unkind to the California landmark: A giant octopus attacked the Golden Gate Bridge in It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955); Magneto ripped the bridge off its foundation in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006); and a simian revolt broke out on its pavement in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). If Hitchcock had more money or time at his disposal, The Birds might have subjected the bridge to yet another indignity. Early in pre-production, Hitchcock entertained the idea of closing his film with a shot of several hundred birds perching on the Golden Gate. However, he quickly realized that this proposed visual would have been way too costly to shoot. Hunter’s script also called for a horde of birds to attack the roof of Mitch and Melanie’s car as they drive away from Bodega Bay at the end of the film. That concept was abandoned, too.
8. THE ATTIC SCENE TOOK AN ENTIRE WEEK TO SHOOT, AND PROVED TO BE TOO MUCH FOR TIPPI HEDREN.
When Cary Grant visited the set, he called Hedren the bravest lady he’d ever met. To put it mildly, she had a rough moviemaking experience. During the telephone booth scene, a pane of so-called “safety-glass” that shattered in her face turned out to be real glass; its shards were then painstakingly extracted from her nose and left cheek. And then there was the attic attack. Hedren’s character in The Birds is Melanie Daniels, a confident blonde who courts Mitch Brenner. One of the movie’s most shocking moments comes when Melanie takes a peek inside the Brenner family’s attic and finds a small army of birds hiding out. The second they see her, they charge Melanie, who’s rendered unconscious by their violent onslaught.
It’s a brutal scene that’s hard to watch and was a nightmare to film. Since this was a complex and emotionally taxing scene, Hedren spent a full week working on it. Hitchcock spent much of it ordering his crewmen to hurl live gulls at her from behind the camera because he thought this would intensify Hedren’s performance. Also, at regular intervals, there’d be a pause in the shooting so the makeup team could apply some new faux injuries. But she also received some real ones; Hedren’s willpower finally collapsed when a bird ripped a hole into her lower eyelid. The injury provoked a full-blown nervous breakdown and, at her doctor’s insistence, production was forced to shut down for a week to allow her to recover.
In the years since the film's release, Hedren has also spoken openly about being subjected to yet another harrowing experience while The Birds was being filmed: According to the actress, she was sexually harassed by Hitchcock. "I think he was an extremely sad character," Hedren said in 2012. "We are dealing with a brain here that was an unusual genius, and evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people that were totally unsuspecting." Hedren's allegations were later dramatized in The Girl, a controversial biopic that premiered in 2012.
9. MATTEL CELEBRATED THE FILM’S 45TH ANNIVERSARY WITH A BARBIE DOLL.
In 2008, the toy company unveiled a commemorative Barbie doll based on Melanie Daniels. The figurine was a dead ringer for Hedren, right down to the green Edith Head suit. It also came with some unusual accessories: Three detachable crows, each one posed in an “attack position” in the original packaging.
10. A MADE-FOR-TV SEQUEL CAME OUT IN 1994.
The Birds II: Land's End premiered on Showtime on March 14, 1994, more than 30 years after the original film debuted in theaters. Hedren makes an appearance in this low-budget sequel, but instead of reprising the role of Melanie, she’s cast as an entirely new character named Helen. Unlike the original film, which took place in California’s Bodega Bay, the setting of this installment is a fictional island on the east coast. It was directed by Rick Rosenthal, who was so dissatisfied with the end product that he used the pseudonym Alan Smithee in place of his real name during the opening credits. Hedren isn’t too crazy about The Birds II either; "It's absolutely horrible," she once said of the film. "It embarrasses me horribly."