Webcomic / What Birds Know

"Birds alone have seen it all..."

What Birds Know is a fantasy webcomic written by Emelie Friberg and Mattias Thorelli, launched in November 2005 and initially updating weekly (in multiple pages), though the schedule has become less regular. It follows three teenage girls from the town of Ev-la Nin who become caught in a mysterious and surrealistic adventure in the forest.

Vandi is the serious and reliable one, forced at an early age to take responsibility for her twin brothers due to her mother's near-death from childbirth. Dores is the artist and dreamer, disillusioned by the greater popularity of her brother, Ian. Elia is the kind, carefree girl, who has a crush on Ian and whose single mother is secretly a prostitute.

On a school outing to gather mushrooms in the forest, the three friends encounter a mysterious tower at the edge of a mountain. Passing through it, they encounter a world subtly altered from what they know. Bizarre trees and rocks dot the landscape. There's a town in the distance that looks like a mirror of their own, yet crumbling and overgrown. Their own behavior seems to be affected by this world: Vandi becomes obsessed with safety and has bizarre hallucinations, Dores becomes extremely standoffish and rude, and Elia goes into fits of hysterical laughter. Strangest of all, the girls begin to lay... eggs.

Overwhelmed by the strangeness, they flee back through the tower, to find that all the changes are undone, except that the egg Elia carried back has turned to gold. Greed overcomes them and they turn back to lay as many eggs as possible before returning to town. As the townsfolk begin to wonder what has happened to them, their interpersonal conflicts grow. But then the adventure takes a turn more serious than anyone could have imagined.

In addition to the surreal elements, What Birds Know features strong themes of growing up: the loss of innocence and disillusionment with childhood dreams. In particular, once the core conflict develops, a major portion of the story is told via flashbacks.

This webcomic contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Dores' 'mother' makes it clear that Dores is her unfavorite, blaming her for her grandfather's injury and eventual death and arguing against sending anyone to search for them.
  • Alternate Universe: The other side of the tower.
  • Animal Motifs: Birds, unsurprisingly, have powerful ties to the alternate world. They frequently appear in reaction shots whenever something significant happens in it, flapping and panicking (and, occasionally, dying). And of course, eggs are linked to birds as well. It turns out that a pet bird's life was sacrificed in order to create it.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The original Nin was a prosperous, happy town...then an insane king came to the throne and stripped it of all its riches, handing them out to his rich friends and slaughtering any peasants who dared to protest.
  • Berserk Button: All of the girls have certain issues that you'd best steer clear of.
  • Black Magic: Massive magical undertakings require a life to be sacrificed. When said life isn't happy about being sacrificed, you get malevolent mirror dimensions.
  • The Blank: All of the various figures/hallucinations Vandi encounters.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Elia, Dores, and Vandi.
  • The Casanova: Ian
  • Dark and Troubled Past: For all the girls, life is not as happy and carefree as it may seem on the outside.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Vandi teeters on the edge of this after Elia and Dores' deaths.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Ian, to a certain extent. Doted on by his family despite clear Jerk Ass traits...although there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here - is he a charming creep because he was spoiled, or is being a charming creep the reason he was spoiled in the first place?
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Pay attention to the details in important scenes and you'll realise the birds were, effectively, benevolent spies.
  • Dumb Blonde: Elia, by contrast with her friends.
  • The Ditz/Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Elia. Though she's more perceptive than she appears...
  • Eldritch Location: The alternate world. Not only is it unsettling, it's actively hostile.
  • Evil Detecting Birds: Thanks to their connection to the avian monster that used to be Ermes, the birds in this world know when Bad Things are going to happen. In the past, three captured songbirds were the first to realise that something was terribly wrong with the mirror-world gold.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: The two remaining oracles exist in a state of gruesome and helpless immortality.
  • Flashback: Used extensively to tell the girls' backstories.
  • Genius Loci: According to the Oracles, the mirror dimension is Ermes, the pet bird they sacrificed to make it...which is why it's so angry.
  • Genki Girl: Elia transforms into this on the other side of the tower.
  • Gossipy Hens: The village women don't think much of Dores' mom.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Vandi is called on to make one.
  • Hoist By Their Own Petard: The evil king, Razitan, is destroyed by the magic he was specifically warned about. The gold he was prepared to murder for turns into his - and Nin's - destruction when it comes alive and creates a monster.
  • The Hyena: Elia, in the Alternate Universe the girls find themselves in.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: Elia and Dores' issues basically boil down to this. Dores wants appreciation and recognition from her negligent and judgemental family, while Elia fantasises of creating large, perfect family with the least appropriate man she could find (the womanising Ian). This desire gets her killed, as she seeks adoration from the same beings that eat her alive. Symbolism, anyone?
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Dores, who has become more of a Jerk Ass/Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk beyond the tower. Before that incident, we have seen her in staunch support of her friends (protecting them from bullies) and caring for her grandfather. We also know that she cares enough to be able to paint a tender family portrait of Vandi's clan.
    • Ian seems to be heading in this direction thanks to Character Development.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The trio met when five-year-old Elia was being picked on for her fatherless status by a group of boys. Dores wades in to defend her, whereupon the boys start bullying her for her weight. Dores simply punches them, and, predictably, the teacher who has apparently been ignoring the boys' bullying of the girls drags both Eila and Dores off to the school principal...where Vandi is, having just moved into the area.
  • Killed Off for Real: Elia and Dores. Until they get better. The events of page 970 suggest that Vandi has exchanged her life for theirs.
  • Kuu Dere: All three of our main trio show some shades of this, but rather than their dere sides being brought out through Character Development like usual, their Kuu sides are.
  • Maintain the Lie: Elia's mom tells everyone that her husband is away on important business. In reality, he left her, and she keeps up their standard of living by being a prostitute. She thinks Elia doesn't know. She's wrong.
  • Mind Screw: Everything since they went to the other side of the tower. Made even worse by the fact that we don't know if it's real or just a Mushroom Samba. Although Elia and Dores are definitely dead... until page 963, that is.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: Used without parody, interestingly enough.
  • Moving the Goalposts: The many compromises and sacrifices the oracles make to placate their vicious and greedy king up to and including murdering their pet for a spell were always futile: they knew that he would always demand more. The problem was that he could easily have had them executed if they refused.
  • Mushroom Samba: Maybe.
  • Mystical Pregnancy: The egg-laying is a twisted form of this, and Elia clearly thinks of the resulting goo-creatures as her "babies.". Many of the comic's main themes centre around the same anxiety over the "uncomfortable" aspects of being female that the Mystical Pregnancy is a result of: pregnancy, childbirth, childcare, menstruation, puberty, and sex all cause serious problems for the women who experience them.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: The 2015 redesign of the comic's website includes the brief disclaimer: "No birds were harmed during the production of this comic."
  • No Sympathy:
    • Vandi's dad, while being one of the better parents, is seen guilt-tripping/berating/arguing with his young daughter (there's no speech, so we can't tell) when she wants to go outside and play, clearly browbeating her into doing chores and looking after her brothers instead. Seriously, her playground becomes totally disused and her entire childhood passes her by as she spends all her time as a parental substitute/ The Caretaker — he couldn't let her have one afternoon off?
    • Dores' parents exhibit this towards her as a matter of course — her grandpa is injured in an accident while returning a hammer dropped by Ian, and yet the whole incident is her fault in her parents' eyes. Ian is treated like a hero while a distressed Dores gets ignored by her father and brother, and is treated as The Unfavorite by her mother.
    • Ian takes after his folks and shows absolutely no empathy after learning that Elia and Dores are dead.
  • Oh Crap!: Page 556: Dores' expression after landing in/breaking her eggs and getting covered in egg creatures.
  • Only Sane Woman: Vandi. She has a peculiar "spacing out" episode before the tower is opened, but after that she's the only one whose less desirable traits aren't amplified on the other side, allowing her to see the mirror world for the dangerous place it is.
  • Painting the Medium: Dores' backwards speech bubbles.
  • Parental Abandonment: A theme for both Elia and Vandi, though from different causes.
  • Parents as People: Elia's mother is sympathetic, but clearly has issues. Dores' parents are jerks in their own right in addition to being pretty rubbish as parents to her. Vandi's dad is sweet and eccentric, but seems to have little grasp on the seriousness of situations... and he's probably a big part of why Vandi was denied a real childhood.
  • Promotion to Parent: Vandi. She was left was all the housework and child-raising during her mother's coma, and we never see her father even trying to lessen the burden on her.
  • Title Drop: 939 pages in, the mystery of the title is solved, and the real significance of the ever-present birds in the comic is revealed. How can the eerie priestesses talk at length about Vandi and her friends' most painful and intimate secrets? "We know what birds know...The little one on your windowsill that you never noticed? It noticed you."
  • Toxic Friend Influence: While Ian is hardly a saint, it seems clear his two friends are pushing him to lower his standards even further than they already are.
  • Team Mom: Vandi. Dores even points out (rather maliciously) that everyone who realizes this can take advantage of it.
  • Tsundere: Dores. Her "Tsun" side comes out more on the other side of the tower.
  • The Hecate Sisters: The girls fit the archetype to a T. Vandi is reliable mother, Elia is the cheerful maiden and Dores is the cynical crone.
  • The Unfavorite: Dores - she's a really talented artist but her brother Ian is beloved by all, and she feels ignored in his shadow. Also, her parents are Jerkasses; see No Sympathy.
  • Useless Bystander Parent: Dores' dad. While uncaring, he clearly thought that blaming his father-in-law's death on Dores was an overreaction on his wife's part. Mentioning this to her is a token gesture, however, as his wife maintains that she's bad luck, and he doesn't defend her. He simply stands back and lets his wife continue to emotionally torture their daughter.
  • Vicious Cycle:
    • The Mirror World apparently operates like this. The second time it is opened, events similar to the first tragedy begin to play out. The Oracles indicate that this will happen again and again until somebody can put an end to it.
    • The Oracles' existence is one on a smaller scale. Their lives are a cycle of being abused for not being able to give the king what he wants, coming up with a solution that will get him what he wants, being lauded / left alone for a while, then promptly being dragged over the coals again when the kings decides he wants something else (usually because he has squandered whatever they worked so hard to get for him the last time).
  • Wham Episode: Elia's eggs hatch, and the creatures inside eat her alive. When the same later happens to Dores, it's almost predictable by comparison.