Olivia Rodrigo is scared of birds – and she’s not alone. What’s behind this fear?

<span>Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

“Birds are so foreign to us – there’s not one body part that looks like ours,” Olivia Rodrigo recently told Rolling Stone magazine with a straight face. The gen Z pop sensation went on: “Everyone’s all afraid about aliens and shit. They’re like, ‘What are the aliens going to look like?’ I’m like, ‘We have birds on our planet, and we’re not scared of them. We’re fine!’”

Rodrigo is not the only celebrity whose relationship with the avian community is strained. Lucille Ball saw some sparrows in the window on the day she found out her father had died. For the rest of her life, she stayed away from bird-printed art and decor.

Ingmar Bergman was afraid of birds but told Reuters in 2001 that he had dreamed of a “large, shimmering green” one, which he believed to be a message from his late wife, Ingrid.

Despite being “terrified” of the peacocks she had to act alongside while filming the schmaltzy We Bought a Zoo, Scarlett Johansson bravely sat down with Vulture to promote the 2011 film. “I’m only scared of birds,” she said. “Something about the wings and beaks and the flapping.” The rapper Eminem has also copped to a “serious fear of owls”.

Ornithophobia – fear of birds – was fueling nightmares long before Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film The Birds turned them into flying villains.

Where did it all begin? Early European farmers first associated crows and ravens with doom when the birds of prey came to eat their dead livestock. Birds who flew into homes were thought to be seeking a soul to take to heaven. As English teachers love to remind us, a flock of crows is called a “murder”. That may be related to how crows and ravens historically flocked to battlefields to feast on the dead.

Another folk tale says groups of crows would hold trials for members who committed crimes, sometimes doling out capital punishment in the form of death by mass crow attack.

Related: ‘The lunacy is getting more intense’: how Birds Aren’t Real took on the conspiracy theorists

Even today, gen Z has its suspicions. In her Rolling Stone interview Rodrigo also referenced the satirical “birds aren’t real” conspiracy theory, pushed by a fake group that insists birds are actually government surveillance drones. (The collective’s young founder, Pete McIndoe, told the New York Times that the theory is made up, and meant to poke fun at growing up in a post-truth world.)

On TikTok, videos with the hashtag “fearofbirds” have been viewed 1.9m times. Some of the clips give tips on how to get over the phobia, while others document times seagulls or cranes got a little too close for comfort.

Hitchcock’s film did much to advance the notion that crows and ravens are homicidal maniacs, and Olivia Rodrigo might not enjoy learning that The Birds was based on a true story.

In 1961, residents of Capitola, California, woke up to find that “hordes of seabirds were dive-bombing their homes, crashing into cars and spewing half-digested anchovies onto lawns”, according to the Mercury News. Decades later, scientists blamed this carnage on a crop of toxic algae the poor creatures probably ingested.