The film stars Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren, in her screen debut, supported by Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright. The screenplay is by Evan Hunter, who was told by Hitchcock to develop new characters and a more elaborate plot while keeping du Maurier's title and concept of unexplained bird attacks.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a young socialite known for rather racy behavior and playing pranks, meets lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco bird shop. He wants to purchase a pair of lovebirds for his sister's eleventh birthday, but the shop has none. He had seen her in court once before when her recklessness resulted in the breaking of a plate glass window, but she does not know him; attracted, he plays a prank by pretending to mistake her for a salesperson. She is infuriated when she discovers this, even though she also likes to play practical jokes. Intrigued by his veiled advance, she finds his weekend address in Bodega Bay, purchases a pair of lovebirds, and makes the long drive to deliver them. While he goes into the barn she sneaks the birdcage inside the Brenner family home, with a note. He spots her on the water through a pair of binoculars during her retreat, and races across the bay to head her off. She is attacked near shore on the town side and injured by a seagull. He invites her to dinner, and she hesitantly agrees.
Melanie gets to know Mitch, his domineering mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). She also befriends local school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Mitch's ex-lover. When she spends the night at Annie's house they are startled by a loud thud; a gull has killed itself by flying into the front door. At Cathy's birthday party the next day, the guests are set upon by seagulls. The following evening, sparrows invade the Brenner home through the chimney. The next morning, Lydia, a widow who still sees to the family farmstead, pays a visit to a neighboring farmer to discuss the unusual behavior of her chickens. Finding his eyeless corpse, pecked lifeless by birds, she flees in terror. After being comforted by Melanie and Mitch she expresses concern for Cathy's safety at school. Melanie drives there and waits for class to end, unaware that a large flock of crows are massing in the nearby playground. Unnerved when she sees its jungle gym engulfed by them, she warns Annie, and they evacuate the children. The commotion stirs the crows into attacking, injuring several of the children.
Melanie meets Mitch at a local restaurant. Several patrons describe their own encounters with aggressive bird behavior. An amateur ornithologist dismisses the reports as fanciful and argues with Melanie over them. Shortly birds begin to attack people outside the restaurant, knocking a gas station attendant unconscious while he is filling a car with fuel, which spills out onto the street. A bystander amidst it attempts to light a cigar, igniting a pool of gas and becoming incinerated. The explosion attracts a mass of gulls, which begin to swarm menacingly as townsfolk attempt to tackle the fire. Melanie is forced to take refuge in a phone booth. Rescued by Mitch, she returns to the restaurant, where Melanie is accused of causing the attacks, which began with her arrival. The pair return to Annie's house and find that she has been killed by the crows while ushering Cathy to safety.
Melanie and the Brenners seek refuge inside the family home. It is attacked by waves of birds of all different species, which several times nearly break in through barricaded doors and windows. During a night-time lull between attacks Melanie hears the sound of fluttering wings. Not wanting to disturb the others' sleep, she enters the kitchen and sees the lovebirds are still. Realizing the sounds are emanating from above, she cautiously climbs the staircase and enters Cathy's bedroom, where she finds the birds have broken through the roof. They violently attack her, trapping her in the room until Mitch comes to her rescue. She is badly injured and nearly catatonic; Mitch insists they must get her to the hospital and suggests they drive away to San Francisco. When he looks outside, it is dawn and a sea of birds ripple menacingly around the Brenner house as he prepares her car for their escape. The radio reports the spread of bird attacks to nearby communities, and suggests that "the military" may be required to intervene because civil authorities are unable to combat the unexplained attacks. In the final shot, the car carrying Melanie, the Brenners, and the lovebirds slowly makes its way through a landscape in which thousands of birds are ominously perching.
On August 18, 1961, residents in the town of Capitola, California, awoke to find sooty shearwaters slamming into their rooftops, and their streets covered with dead birds. News reports suggested domoic acid poisoning (amnesic shellfish poisoning) as the cause. According to the local Santa Cruz Sentinel, Alfred Hitchcock requested news copy in 1961 to use as "research material for his latest thriller". At the end of the same month, he hired Evan Hunter to adapt Daphne du Maurier's novella, "The Birds", first published in her 1952 collection The Apple Tree. Hunter had previously written "Vicious Circle" for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which he adapted for the television anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also adapted Robert Turner's story "Appointment at Eleven" for the same television series. Hunter later suspected that he was hired because he had demonstrated he could write suspense (with the 87th Precinct novels, as Ed McBain) and because his novel The Blackboard Jungle had received critical acclaim. The relationship between Hunter and Hitchcock during the creation of The Birds was documented by the writer in his 1997 autobiography Me and Hitch, which contains a variety of correspondence between the writer, director and Hitchcock's assistant, Peggy Robertson.
Hunter began working on the screenplay in September 1961. He and Hitchcock developed the story, suggesting foundations such as the townspeople having a guilty secret to hide, and the birds an instrument of punishment. He suggested that the film begin using some elements borrowed from the screwball comedy genre then have it evolve into "stark terror". This appealed to Hitchcock, according to the writer, because it conformed to his love of suspense: the title and the publicity would have already informed the audience that birds attack, but they do not know when. The initial humor followed by horror would turn the suspense into shock.
Hitchcock solicited comments from several people regarding the first draft of Hunter's screenplay. Consolidating their criticisms, Hitchcock wrote to Hunter, suggesting that the script (particularly the first part) was too long, contained insufficient characterization in the two leads, and that some scenes lacked drama and audience interest. Hitchcock at later stages consulted with his friends Hume Cronyn (whose wife Jessica Tandy was playing Lydia) and V.S. Pritchett, who both offered lengthy reflections on the work.
Hitchcock decided to do without any conventional incidental score. Instead, he made use of sound effects and sparse source music in counterpoint to calculated silences. He wanted to use the electroacoustic Mixtur-Trautonium to create the birdcalls and noises. He had first encountered this predecessor to the synthesizer on Berlin radio in the late 1920s. It was invented by Friedrich Trautwein and further developed by Oskar Sala into the Trautonium, which would create some of the bird sounds for this film.
The director commissioned Sala and Remi Gassmann to design an electronic soundtrack. They are credited with "electronic sound production and composition", and Hitchcock's previous musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann is credited as "sound consultant".
Source music includes the first of Claude Debussy's Deux arabesques, which Tippi Hedren's character plays on piano, and "Risseldy Rosseldy", an Americanized version of the Scottish folk song "Wee Cooper O'Fife", which is sung by the schoolchildren.
The special effects shots of the attacking birds were done at Walt Disney Studios by animator/technician Ub Iwerks, who used the sodium vapor process ("yellow screen") which he had helped to develop. The SV process films the subject against a screen lit with narrow-spectrum sodium vapor lights. Unlike most compositing processes, SVP actually shoots two separate elements of the footage simultaneously using a beam-splitter. One reel is regular film stock and the other a film stock with emulsion sensitive only to the sodium vapor wavelength. This results in very precise matte shots compared to blue screen special effects, necessary due to "fringing" of the image from the birds' rapid wing flapping.
The film premiered March 28, 1963 in New York City. The Museum of Modern Art hosted an invitation-only screening as part of a 50-film retrospective of Hitchcock's film work. The MOMA series had a booklet with a monograph on the director written by Peter Bogdanovich. The film was screened out of competition in May at a prestigious invitational showing at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival with Hitchcock and Hedren in attendance.
Ub Iwerks was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Special Effects. The winner that year was Cleopatra. Tippi Hedren received the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actress in 1964, sharing it with Ursula Andress and Elke Sommer. She also received the Photoplay Award as Most Promising Newcomer. The film ranked No. 1 of the top 10 foreign films selected by the Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards. Hitchcock also received the Association's Director Award for the film.
It also won the Horror Hall of Fame Award in 1991.
The Birds received critical acclaim. In recent years it has received a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 96% based on 52 critic reviews with an average rating of 8.2/10, with the consensus: "Proving once again that build-up is the key to suspense, Hitchcock successfully turned birds into some of the most terrifying villains in horror history." Film critic David Thomson refers to it as Hitchcock's "last unflawed film".
Humanities scholar Camille Paglia wrote a monograph about the film for the BFI Film Classics series. She interprets it as an ode to the many facets of female sexuality and, by extension, nature itself. She notes that women play pivotal roles in it. Mitch is defined by his relationships with his mother, sister, and ex-lover – a careful balance which is disrupted by his attraction to the beautiful Melanie.
The film was honored by the American Film Institute as the seventh greatest thriller and Bravo awarded it the 96th spot on their "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments" for the scene when the birds attack the town.
An unrelated sequel, The Birds II: Land's End, was released in 1994, with different actors. It was a direct-to-television film and received negative reviews. Its director, Rick Rosenthal, removed his name from it, opting to use the Hollywood pseudonym Alan Smithee. Hedren appeared in a supporting role, but not as her original character.
In October 2007, Variety reported that Naomi Watts would star in Universal's remake of the film, which would be directed by Casino Royale director Martin Campbell. The production would be a joint venture by Platinum Dunes and Mandalay Pictures. Hedren stated her opposition to the remake, saying, "Why would you do that? Why? I mean, can't we find new stories, new things to do?" However, since 2007, development has been stalled. On June 16, 2009, Brad Fuller of Dimension Films stated that no further developments had taken place, commenting, "We keep trying, but I don't know." Eventually, in December 2009, Martin Campbell was replaced as director by Dennis Iliadis.
Several shooting scenes from the film are reenacted in The Girl, a 2012 HBO/BBC film that gives a version of the relationship between Hitchcock and Hedren.
In August 2017, the BBC announced they will be making a television series out of 'The Birds' for broadcast in 2018. The series, from Harry Potter producer David Heyman, will bear a closer resemblance to the 1952 Daphne du Maurier novelette than the 1963 film, and rather than northern California, the birds will attack in Cornwall. The pilot for the series is being written by Conor McPherson who adapted the original source material into a stage play in 2009.