The hidden meanings of birds in the movies

Madness. Freedom. Vanity. Aliya looks at the symbolism behind our feathered friends in cinema...

When Nelly Furtado sang she was like a bird, we all knew she meant it metaphorically. The next lines were about not knowing where her soul was, which doesn’t strike me as typical bird symbolism, but birds mean a lot of things to a lot of people. We humans put all sorts of meanings on the behaviour of birds when they’re busy sitting in cages, building nests, laying eggs and so on.

Film directors are no different. If you see a bird on the screen, chances are it’s going to be there to represent one of the following things:

This little birdie has a superiority complex

In movie metaphors, birds can represent people who think they are above fate, or even fate itself. Let’s start with the bigheads and work up.

Russian director Sergei Eisenstein is probably best known for Battleship Potemkin, but his film October (1927) contains some amazing images, including a reconstruction of the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Eisenstein explored how symbolism can work through the interconnection of images in October. In one scene he shows us the head of the provisional government enjoying the Winter Palace, and then he cuts to an image of a preening mechanical peacock. We make a connection between the two pictures: vanity.

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I bet you never thought there was a connection between Eisenstein and Kung Fu Panda 2, but here it is – Lord Shen is a white peacock. The peacock represents divinity, rank and power, while the colour white symbolises death in Chinese culture. It’s no wonder that Lord Shen is a kick-ass bad guy.

Birds make great symbols of extreme, almost godlike, power. The eagles in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy are the only creatures capable of taking on Nazgul, leading to the popular internet question – why didn’t they just fly Frodo to Mount Doom in the first place? (If you google it, you’ll find there are good reasons…) In Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (2002) Fawkes the Phoenix helps to defeat the basilisk and then saves Harry from certain death with its healing tears. And both Harry and Voldemort’s wands contain phoenix feathers.

Hitchcock gives us the strongest picture of the flipside of this power in The Birds (1963). What if all birds were to turn against us? When we are given a bird’s-eye view of the town of Bodega Bay, California, we look down upon it as gas stations explode and everything goes up in flames, and the chilling realisation is that we are not capable of protecting ourselves from such an attack. The birds win, and we don’t stand a chance.

This little birdie means freedom

In 1918, Maurice Tourneur directed The Blue Bird. It’s a fairy story that is charming, surreal, and scary. Two children, Tyltyl and Mytyl, are sent on a journey by a fairy to find the bluebird of happiness. They look in some incredible places, and its impossible to watch it now and not think of The Wizard Of Oz. Rarely do films get that mixture of innocence, strangeness and threat so perfectly balanced. The blue bird of happiness is found a number of times, but it cannot be caged. Happiness must come and go from us freely.

Children’s films love the connection between freedom and birds. For instance, Disney’s Aladdin (1992) shows us Jasmine in her prison of a palace, rich and bored. She releases her pet birds from the aviary and watches them fly up to the sun. It’s not subtle. Chicken Run (2000) gives us the best re-enactment of The Great Escape with poultry possible. All the Harry Potter films are awash with imagery of birds and flying.

Perhaps my favourite moment is in the first film, The Philosopher’s Stone (2001), when Harry finds the mirror of Erised. It shows him his dead parents, and it’s a moment of deep sadness when Dumbledore explains that the mirror must be moved so that Harry does not become obsessed. The next shot takes place in the snowy courtyard at Hogwarts. Harry has his owl, Hedwig, on his arm. He lets it fly up into the snow, and we follow the bird away from sadness and worry; we know Harry will be fine.

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And then there is Kes. Made in 1969 by Ken Loach, the kestrel that 15 year old Billy Caspar trains represents his only escape from a life of serious bleakness. He’s bullied at home and at school, and the only time we see him smile is when he watches Kes fly. One of the great films made for young adults, it doesn’t sugar-coat life. The bird is only a temporary escape; flying away from your problems offers no real solution.

There are plenty of adult films in all genres that use the bird/freedom connection: The Thin Red Line, Love Happens, Ladyhawke, The Happy Time, Black Narcissus… and that’s before we even get started on feathers. Take Ginger Rogers’ beautiful feathered dress in Top Hat (1935). Now that’s freedom of movement, even if it did continually shed all over Fred’s suit.

This little birdie is mentally unstable

The first time that the psychopath became the star of the film was in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The heroine doesn’t even make it through the first half of the film, but she’s around long enough to see Norman Bates’ collection of stuffed birds. They look down on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and on us from around the room behind the reception area of Bates Motel, and represent Norman’s fascination with death and passivity. The mental unbalance of the killer is more interesting than the personality of the victim. He talks about why he loves to stuff birds in particular. We’re being asked to look inside his head, and what we see is fascinating, and terrible, and involves dead eyes and rigid bodies forced into uncomfortable poses. Rather like Marion in the shower only a few hours later.

I’m not sure why liking birds or keeping birds became a symbol of craziness in movie language, unless it’s entirely due to the effect of Hitchcock’s stuffed victims. Think of The Producers (1968), where Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars) keeps pigeons up on the roof of his apartment block. In the 2005 remake Will Ferrell plays Liebkind, and in that version he’s even trained the pigeons to give him a Nazi salute.

Iron Man 2 (2012) sees Mickey Rourke take on the bad guy role as Ivan Vanko. Apparently it was Rourke’s own idea to give the character more personality by playing the role with gold teeth and a pet cockatoo. Unfortunately the cockatoo doesn’t give the impression of deep character traits so much as general craziness.

Yes, a bird on the shoulder equals an unhinged piratical personality in movie terms. The father of them all is Long John Silver, of course, played complete with parrot in the 1950 version of Treasure Island (and a sequel) by Robert Newton. Then the pirate with the parrot makes an appearance in the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, and even poor Captain Hook ends up with one in the 2003 version of Peter Pan. If you want movie shorthand for weird, stick a bird next to your ear.

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Sometimes the bird represents that everyone else is crazy. The parrot in The Ladykillers (1955) is the voice of reason amidst the madness. When it flies off, who can blame it? My favourite moment is when Mrs Wilberforce has just let the room to Professor Marcus (the brilliant Alec Guinness), and she returns to her sitting room to tell the parrot – “We’re going to have a guest in the house!” The parrot replies with a low, menacing chuckle. It already knows things aren’t going to go well. But they are going to be very dark, and very funny.

This little birdie can be a comedy sidekick

Are birds comedic? I don’t tend to think of them that way, but someone in Hollywood must, because birds keep cropping up to offer comic relief. Often there’s a degree of anthropomorphism; the birds are given personalities. Sometimes they are even the star of the show, as in Paulie (1998) or Rio (2011). Or they’re one of a cast of animals in busy films that look like a nightmare to shoot, such as both versions of Doctor Doolittle (1967/1998), Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), or 102 Dalmatians (2000), in which Eric Idle provides the voice for the macaw who thinks it’s a Rottweiler.   

Are there any really endearing comedic birds? I have a soft spot for Bubo the mechanical owl in Clash Of The Titans (1981) but I think that might be purely because of the genius of Ray Harryhausen. Or there’s a truly funny and highly offensive moment in Dumb And Dumber (1994) involving a dead bird and blind kid, but maybe it would be better not to go there.

The most intriguing comic oddity might well be Bill And Coo (1948). It’s an entertaining movie of everyday life in the town of Chirpendale, which is populated entirely with birds. There’s an approaching threat – a crow known as the Black Menace. Can Bill save the town and his sweetheart, Coo? Bill And Coo is an amazing accomplishment, particularly the crowd scenes and circus scenes, and it also has a historical resonance. The birds flee the Black Menace into underground bunkers, and the sound of the crow approaching is a low drone, like an overhead bomber. World War Two has been over for humans for two years, but the poor birds of Chirpendale appear to still be living through it.

Bill And Coo won a special Oscar in 1948 – a plaque which read, “In which artistry and patience blended in a novel and entertaining use of the medium of motion pictures”. It is a great reminder of how inventive Hollywood can be when it puts its mind to it.

There are so many films that use the symbolism of the bird that it’s impossible to begin to cover them all, but hopefully these categories have given some idea of what exactly that bird is doing onscreen. That’s right – it’s a vain, comedic psychopath that’s wishing for freedom. Or something. You have to feel sorry for the birds, really. Well, apart from the ones in Hitchcock’s The Birds, who are going to end up ruling the planet. Then we’ll be the ones being made to perform in movies for little more than a handful of seed and a cuttlefish…

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