‘The Birds’ Is Turning 60 — What’s That Creepy-Ass Song the Kids Were Singing Anyway?

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A crowd of screaming children run under a sky darkened by swooping crows. A school house stands in the distance.
Small children attacked mercilessly by crows in ‘The Birds,’ directly after singing ‘Risselty Rosselty.’ Coincidence?

The Birds turns 60 on March 28, and the film remains just as unnerving now as it was when it came out in 1963. Based on a 1952 Daphne du Maurier story and inspired by a real-life incident in which residents of Capitola were attacked by unhinged seabirds, the Hitchcock classic remains a Bay Area favorite.

In case you’re one of the three people here who hasn’t yet seen it, the story goes a little something like this: After San Francisco gal-about-town Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren) goes to Bodega Bay (for what can only be described as a thirsty prank), the small community is subjected to increasingly violent attacks by a variety of birds. Chimneys are invaded! Windows are smashed! Eyes are pecked out! Teachers are murdered! As the attacks increase in severity, Melanie is transformed from a confident practical joker into a shell of herself.

At Melanie’s side is the Brenner family. There’s her love interest, Mitch (Rod Taylor), Mitch’s mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his little sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Try to ignore the fact that the math in this family makes no sense at all. Lydia is in her fifties, Mitch is in his thirties, but Cathy is just turning 11? (Talk about a 1950s miracle baby!)

At one point, after the first avian-inflicted deaths start to occur, Melanie goes to collect Cathy from school. What follows is probably the most iconic scene in the whole movie. As Melanie waits on a bench outside, smoking a cigarette, crows eerily gather on a climbing frame behind her. All the while, the children inside can be heard singing a folksy refrain, heightening the sense of impending doom.


Given that The Birds has no musical score and is soundtracked almost entirely by the sound of screeching birds, the children’s song carries a particular sense of foreboding. Their repetitive little ditty has creeped me out since I was a child myself, and it continues to do so. In part, because it sounds like a song that is intrinsically designed to drive you mad if you listen to it for long enough.

So where the hell did this thing come from?

It’s called “Risselty Rosselty” and the version that we hear in The Birds goes a little something like this:

I married my wife in the month of June,
Risselty rosselty, now, now, now,
I brought her home by the light of the moon,
Risselty rosselty, hey Johnny Dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now.

In subsequent verses, while the more nonsensical lines remain roughly the same, the first and third lines often change to push the song’s narrative along.

In the second verse, we find out that the wife “combed her hair but once a year,” and that “with every stroke, she shed a tear.” In the fifth we hear that she “swept up the floor but once a year,” and “said that brooms were much too dear.” In the seventh, the wife churns “butter in her dad’s old boot,” and “for a catch, she used her foot.” In the seventh, things get even grosser: “The butter, it came out a grisly grey,” and “the cheese, it took legs and ran away.” In the ninth, her husband finally tries to put his foot down and fails. “I asked my wife to wash the floor,” this verse goes, “she gave me my hat and she showed me the door.”

The version of “Risselty Rosselty” that we hear in The Birds is actually a sanitized rendition of a 19th century Scottish folk song called “Wee Cooper O’Fife,” in which a wife is failing to perform her household duties.

Sample verse:

She wadna wash, nor she wadna wring,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
For the spoiling o’ her gowden ring,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

In this original, wee Cooper (the husband), frustrated by his wife’s vanity and laziness, takes to physically abusing her to teach her a lesson.


At one point he lays “sheep’s skin” on her back before beating her.

The Cooper has gane to his woo’ pack,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
And he’s laid a sheep’s skin on his wife’s back,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

It’s I’ll no thrash ye for your gentle kin,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
But I will thrash my ain sheep’s skin,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

(No wonder The Birds didn’t go with the original.)

“Wee Cooper O’ Fife,” it turns out, originally arrived in the United States sometime at the turn of the 19th century, and was later recorded by a variety of American folk artists including Burl Ives and Glenn Yarbrough. The version we hear in The Birds, however, is more closely based on a rendition by Pete Seeger from 1957 that erased all of that uncomfortable domestic violence stuff.

(Seeger’s sister Peggy also recorded a version.)

“Risselty-Rosselty” wound up in The Birds almost by happenstance. Legend has it that Alfred Hitchcock asked the movie’s scriptwriter Evan Hunter to come up with an appropriate song to soundtrack Melanie’s anxiety as she waits for Cathy outside the schoolhouse. For inspiration, Hunter asked his three sons about songs they were singing at school and “Risselty-Rosselty” happened to be one of them. Hunter picked up the lyrics from a teacher at his sons’ school in Westchester, New York, and updated them to better fit the movie, and the times.

The scene of course culminates in scores of children getting attacked by the crows, as they run screaming from their school. Gloriously, the original schoolhouse still stands in Bodega Bay, albeit with a fence around it and a request from its residents not to approach the front door.


Should you wish to pay it a visit, you know what the soundtrack should be.