Welcome to Elements of Story, a biweekly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just won’t go away. This entry explains the significance of dead birds.
When a dead animal shows up in a movie or TV show, it’s generally not a good sign. From waking up next to a severed horse head to finding a murdered cat on the doorstep, dead creatures large and small often serve as an omen of trouble ahead. But while bad vibes are present regardless of species, one kind of critter stands out above all the rest.
Out of all the bad omens out there, there’s nothing quite like a dead bird. Strange children fascinated by avian corpses are a sign of alarmingly unfeeling tendencies (see: Hereditary; The Innocents). Dead birds fall from the sky to indicate encroaching environmental disasters (Chernobyl; Dark). The on-screen history of dead birds is rich and varied, but the implications are remarkably consistent: it doesn’t bode well.
There are a number of reasons why dead birds are particularly potent portents of doom. The simple fact is that corpses falling from the sky like macabre hail or splattering themselves against a window at high speeds inherently brings drama to the table in a way land and sea creatures have difficulty matching. But there are also other reasons with a little more nuance to them.
The key reason is scientific and sets the stage for a good deal of historical and cultural significance given to dead birds. Many birds are sentinel species, meaning they are particularly sensitive to the presence of environmental toxins. In other words, their deaths sound an alarm in a very real, non-metaphorical sort of way.
It’s worth noting that nowadays birds aren’t really the most “important” sentinel species in terms of prominence in scientific research and the like; that award goes to decidedly less-sexy creatures like water fleas and mussels. However, in terms of cultural prominence, birds retain a bit of a monopoly on the sentinel species concept.
Canaries in coal mines are widely regarded as the premier example of a sentinel species, even though it is a bit of a stretch considering canaries do not naturally take up residence in mines. It feels a bit more like a smart application of a concept than a particularly fitting example of the fundamental concept itself, but I digress.
The use of canaries as tweety carbon monoxide detectors was first proposed around the turn of the century by pioneering scientist and wonderfully mustachioed nutter John Scott Haldane (not to be confused with J. B. S. Haldane, his son, the even more influential but similarly unorthodox scientist-philosopher who coined the term “clone”). Haldane initially proposed the use of any small, common mammal, like mice, but ultimately favored canaries for their speedy metabolism. One imagines the miners also likely favored canaries for their not being rodents.
Beyond canaries, the most commonly known instance of the sentinel species concept is the title of Rachel Carson‘s landmark pesticide exposé Silent Spring. While the book explores the threat posed by pesticides to ecosystems and human health in a number of different ways, its most famous example involves birds of prey and DDT.
Because they are at the top of the food chain, birds of prey are particularly sensitive to widespread pesticide use through the phenomenon known as biomagnification. Basically it goes like this: DDT kills insects; small creatures eat a bunch of insects and ingest DDT in the process but not enough to be dangerous; mid-sized creatures eat small creatures, and the same thing happens; but then a peregrine falcon eats a bunch of mid-sized creatures for dinner and gets a harmful dose of DDT in the process.
In sum, introducing toxins at the base of a food chain tends to create clear repercussions at the top. That the most iconic part of Carson’s seminal publication and therefore entire career is about birds is really quite ironic; her trained specialty was actually marine biology, which was also the focus of most of her work.
Between the chirping, showy aeronautics and the quite often colorful appearance, birds make their lively presence known in ways that make their absence (or demise) particularly conspicuous. Birds might not always be the most technically precise sentinel species, but they represent the most obvious embodiment of the basic concept of making an invisible threat visible.
Beyond the speedy metabolism and being more aesthetically pleasing than rodents, when a canary dies it’s a pretty evident passing. When a mouse goes still and quiet, you still need to give it a few prods to check that it’s not just sleeping or plotting or what-have-you.
As such, when making the jump from fact to fiction, it’s not surprising that birds are the go-to sentinel species. In on-screen tales of environmental toxins, particularly of the radioactive variety, the “dead bird falls from the sky” shot is a regular favorite with good reason. It’s one of the most visually striking and dramatic ways to quickly convey the gist of the sentinel species concept to an audience.
From simply dramatizing the scientific reality of the sentinel species concept, it just takes an easy jump from literal to figurative to make dead birds a warning for all kinds of invisible threats, from nuclear radiation to a child being possessed by the ghost of a sociopath.