From no less a source than Wikipedia comes this brief story about Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.” According to Wikipedia — according to the October 27, 2008 issue of Nature — the behavior of the birds in the movie may have been loosely based on an incident of Sooty Shearwaters slamming into buildings in Capitola, California, in 1961, after being poisoned by eating plankton contaminated by urea leaching out of septic tanks in the area. The resulting poison is a neurotoxin. According to Wikipedia — according to a local newspaper — Alfred Hitchcock requested a copy of the article.
And how many school students do you think surreptitiously venture into Wikipedia for their school papers? They should be careful. In 1952, almost a decade before the Sooty Shearwaters were committing suicide in California, Daphne du Maurier published her novelette “The Birds” upon which Hitchcock based his movie, released in 1963.
Then there is this: Sooty Shearwaters are not native North American birds. But they do migrate along the West Coast in the fall. Nor do they eat plankton, at least as far as we are able to find. They eat fish, squid and shrimp. The Birds of North America lists six other species of Shearwaters — Sooty Shearwaters breed in New Zealand, not North America — and not one eats plankton. All eat small, schooling bait fish, such as anchovies and sardines which, one supposes, might be a means of transport into a bird, had the fish or shrimp eaten poisoned plankton.
And Nature is a peer-reviewed scientific journal of the highest standing, so it is not for us to question it. And there was an article about Urea acid pollution in that issue. Here is the entire abstract, which is all that is available online to non-subscribers. (And at $200.00 a year, it is likely we’ll remain non-subscribers.)
Urea pollution turns tides toxic.
Kamikaze gulls that inspired Hitchcock’s The Birds may have been doomed by leaky septic tanks. Urea pollution can trigger ocean algae to produce a deadly toxin called domoic acid, scientists have discovered. The research may help explain several mass animal deaths, including a historic bird stranding event thought to have inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film The Birds.
For one thing, Sooty Shearwaters aren’t gulls.
So, according to The Fat Finch — according to The Birds of North America — the story of plankton poisoning — according to Nature — according to Wikipedia — is fishy. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “My young friends you have to be very careful about Wikipedia; otherwise you’re sure to get caught.”
According to us. If any reader is a subscriber to Nature, please check out the entire article and let us know what we’re missing here. In the meantime, students beware: Don’t cite to The Fat Finch either!
The photograph of the Sooty Shearwater is from Wikipedia too. It was made by Mike Baird from Morro Bay, USA.