Tourists still haunt this sleepy town 53 years after the master of suspense filmed Tippi Hedren and a bunch of creepy crows.
BODEGA BAY, Calif. — Alfred Hitchcock fans know this address like they know their grandmother’s house — especially if bloodthirsty crows and gulls have pecked a gaping hole in Granny’s roof.
It’s the town where actress Tippi Hedren, in her knee-length mink, met “The Birds” in Hitchcock’s eerie 1963 film of that name that gave an entire generation a phobia about feathered friends.
In the movie, birds inexplicably start to attack humans. More than 50 years after its release, you can still scan social media and find Hitchcock fanatics from all over the world asking for tips on how to get here.
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So when I visited Bodega Bay, a charming seaside town on the edge of wine country some 48 miles (as the, uh, crow flies) northwest of San Francisco, my intent was to not write about the movie.
After all, how often do tourists come through this sleepy little Sonoma County burg on narrow, winding Highway 1 and ask about “The Birds”?
“Every day of my life, I just can’t stand it!” laughs Nickey Meindersee, at the front desk of Bodega Harbor Inn, where pastel-hued Adirondack chairs look down on the shallow, cedar-edged harbor made famous by the movie.
“An astounding number, considering when the film was made,” says Jim Irving, the white-bearded proprietor of Roadhouse Coffee, which makes the best Americano in town.
“I’ve had three different women come in here saying they don’t like birds because of that movie,” says Gus Heinzmann at the tiny Sonoma Coast Visitor Center. “For its day, it was very scary.”
Creepy birds vs. real birds
Despite special effects that by today’s standards look like a sixth-grader’s class project, there was plenty to shriek over. The pecked-out-eyes scene, which Hitchcock didn’t spare us. The bad-dream birthday party with angry gulls in the tykes’ hair. The menacing ravens lining the monkey bars outside the old schoolhouse.
But I come with another idea. I call up Tom McCuller, who leads free monthly birding outings here for the local Audubon Society. I’ll write about the real birds of Bodega Bay, which Audubon calls an Important Bird Area, a designation reserved for the best bird habitats.
On a pristine morning with a hint of marine fog over rolling coastal hills, McCuller leads me on a tour of his favorite bird-watching sites around Bodega Bay (see sidebar, below).
“It’s a great wintering spot for ducks, shorebirds and loons,” he tells me. “It’s protected, there are not a lot of waves, and there’s lots of food.”
We spy black oystercatchers, with pencil-like red beaks, climbing surf-pounded rocks off Bodega Head. Black brants, which winter here by the thousands, bob on the harbor.
No threatening crows; no cornea-hungry gulls. McCuller, who lives in nearby Santa Rosa, says he saw the movie only when it first came out. He shrugs it off.
Yet I find I can’t stop asking locals about it.
Meindersee recalls a guest’s indignation when he accused the innkeeper of playing hidden recordings of birds in his room.
“He was very serious that we were teasing him,” she says. What he heard was, of course, real gulls squawking outside in the quiet of a morning.
What’s there still to see from the film? Just around the corner, Meindersee points out, is residence-lined Taylor Street, where Hitchcock filmed terrified kids running down the hill as wacked-out birds pecked at their heads.
The Tides, a salty waterfront eatery in the film, still exists, though the original burned in 1968 and its replacement is a modern tourist trap with a large souvenir shop.
Five miles away, in the inland village of Bodega, the 1873-vintage Potter Schoolhouse, which Hitchcock used as the Bodega Bay School where co-star Suzanne Pleshette taught, still stands, next to the pretty, white-steepled St. Teresa Church, briefly glimpsed in the film.
The schoolhouse, in intervening years a bed-and-breakfast and at one time open for tours, is now a private residence, but you can still take selfies from outside the fence.
If “Birds” mania has you in your grip, nick across Bodega Highway to the 160-year-old Bodega Country Store, where you can get clam chowder or crabcakes and it doesn’t cost a dime to inspect shopkeeper Michael Fahmie’s large collection of memorabilia from the movie. (The life-size mannequin of Alfred Hitchcock out front will tip you off.)
While there is some schlock (the boxed Tippi Hedren Halloween costume set, complete with clip-on crows), I was impressed by the movie-costume drawings by famed film costumer Edith Head, including one showing Hedren in her mink. It was autographed (with a trademark bird-wing silhouette) by Hedren, now 86, during one of her annual Labor Day visits to the area to mingle with fans and raise money for her Southern California animal sanctuary.
“She’s always very gracious and poised and happy to be here,” Fahmie said.
Tourism to take to the bank
Back at the visitor center, a corner is dedicated to “The Birds.” T-shirts picture a scene from the movie, with the legend, “Whose idea was it to feed ‘The Birds,’ anyway?”
Heinzmann directs a visitor to find the schoolhouse, then loads me into her Subaru for a drive up Bay Hill Road, which Hitchcock used to show Hedren driving her Aston Martin sports car as it descended from the sky-kissing hills down to the scenic bay.
“This is just an unincorporated fishing hamlet,” Heinzmann says, with no bank, no big supermarket. “You have a veterinarian and a fire department and that’s all you need, really.”
That and a constant stream of visitors from around the globe curious about a creepy movie made here long ago.
If you go
Bodega Bay is in Sonoma County, 2½ hours north of San Francisco via scenic Highway 1, or 90 minutes via Highway 101 and connecting routes.
Finding the ‘Birds’ schoolhouse
To reach the old Potter Schoolhouse from the Sonoma Coast Visitors Center in Bodega Bay, go south on Highway 1 for 4.5 miles. Turn left at the sign for “Bodega — Sebastopol” and continue a half-mile to the village of Bodega (and Bodega Country Store). Just beyond St. Teresa Church, on the right, turn right to find the old school.
Here, view a theater trailer of the 1963 film, “The Birds”:
Finding Bodega Bay’s real birds, on an Audubon outing
Autumn Moore, serving up the morning brew at Roadhouse Coffee, says she got hooked on bird-watching when a birder offered her a look through a scope at the emperor goose.
Tom McCuller, my Audubon Society guide, remembers. It was 2002 that the bird made a rare appearance.
“It shows up here every 10 or 13 years,” he says, and bird “listers” flock to Bodega Bay, Calif.
“The big thing last year was when a Lucy’s warbler showed up behind Diekmann’s Store,” Moore added.
These are the real birds of Bodega Bay, unlike the Hitchcock version that tend to attack people.
McCuller leads a monthly guided birding field trip with stops all around Bodega Bay’s harbor, from the Rail Ponds (breeding site of the Virginia rail) to scenic Bodega Head (we see a pair of Eurasian collared doves, great egrets, an immature red-tailed hawk and a grazing fawn).
August to April is the best time to see migratory birds, which stop over at Bodega Bay by the thousands.
At Doran Regional Park ($7 per car; bit.ly/1nm8n0Z), birders get the harbor on one side of a narrow spit and the ocean on the other. Look for plovers on the ocean side and sandpipers on the harbor, McCuller advises.
McCuller shows me a unique feature called Hole in the Head, a large foundation hole dug here when Pacific Gas & Electric planned to build a nuclear power plant on Bodega Head in the 1960s. It was one of the first such projects to be stopped by citizen protest, seeing as how the San Andreas fault runs through the harbor a few hundred yards away.
Now filled with fresh water and cattails, the hole is prime habitat for songbirds, black-crowned night herons and more.
“It turned out to be a good thing for birds,” McCuller said.
More information: Madrone Audubon field trip around Bodega Bay is 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. the third Wednesday of every month; no advance registration required. Free; madroneaudubon.org/activities-field-trips.php.