The Birds
by Daphne du Maurier

The wind seemed to cut him to the bone as he stood there uncertainly, holding the sack. He could see the white-capped seas breaking down under in the bay. He decided to take the birds to the shore and bury them.

When he reached the beach below the headland he could scarcely stand, the force of the east wind was so strong. It hurt to draw breath, and his bare hands were blue. Never had he known such cold, not in all the bad winters he could remember. It was low tide. He crunched his way over the shingle to the softer sand and then, his back to the wind, ground a pit in the sand with his heel. He meant to drop the birds into it, but as he opened up the sack the force of the wind carried them, lifted them, as though in flight again, and they were blown away from him along the beach, tossed like feathers, spread and scattered, the bodies of the fifty frozen birds. There was something ugly in the sight. He did not like it. The dead birds were swept away from him by the wind.

“The tide will take them when it turns,” he said to himself.

He looked out to sea and watched the crested breakers, combing green. They rose stiffly, curled, and broke again, and because it was ebb tide the roar was distant, more remote, lacking the sound and thunder of the flood.

Then he saw them. The gulls. Out there, riding the seas.

What he had thought at first to be the white caps of the waves were gulls. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands . . . They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide. To eastward and to the west, the gulls were there. They stretched as far as his eye could reach, in close formation, line upon line. Had the sea been still, they would have covered the bay like a white cloud, head to head, body packed to body. Only the east wind, whipping the sea to breakers, hid them from the shore.

Nat turned and, leaving the beach, climbed the steep path home. Someone should know of this. Someone should be told. Something was happening, because of the east wind and the weather, that he did not understand. He wondered if he should go to the call box by the bus stop and ring up the police. Yet what could they do? What could anyone do? Tens of thousands of gulls riding the sea there in the bay because of storm, because of hunger. The police would think him mad, or drunk, or take the statement from him with great calm. “Thank you. Yes, the matter has already been reported. The hard weather is driving the birds inland in great numbers.” Nat looked about him. Still no sign of any other bird. Perhaps the cold had sent them all from upcountry? As he drew near to the cottage his wife came to meet him at the door. She called to him, excited. “Nat,” she said, “it’s on the wireless. They’ve just read out a special news bulletin. I’ve written it down.”

“What’s on the wireless?” he said.

“About the birds,” she said. “It’s not only here; it’s everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.”

Together they went into the kitchen. He read the piece of paper lying on the table.

“Statement from the Home Office at 11 A.M. today. Reports from all over the country are coming in hourly about the vast quantity of birds flocking above towns, villages, and outlying districts, causing obstruction and damage and even attacking individuals. It is thought that the Arctic airstream, at present covering the British Isles, is causing birds to migrate south in immense numbers and that intense hunger may drive these birds to attack human beings. Householders are warned to see to their windows, doors, and chimneys, and to take reasonable precautions for the safety of their children. A further statement will be issued later.”

A kind of excitement seized Nat; he looked at his wife in triumph.

“There you are,” he said. “Let’s hope they’ll hear that at the farm. Mrs. Trigg will know it wasn’t any story. It’s true. All over the country. I’ve been telling myself all morning there’s something wrong. And just now, down on the beach, I looked out to sea and there are gulls, thousands of them, tens of thousands—you couldn’t put a pin between their heads—and they’re all out there, riding on the sea, waiting.”

“What are they waiting for, Nat?” she asked.

He stared at her, then looked down again at the piece of paper.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “It says here the birds are hungry.”

He went over to the drawer where he kept his hammer and tools.

“What are you going to do, Nat?”

“See to the windows and the chimneys too, like they tell you.”

“You think they would break in, with the windows shut? Those sparrows and robins and such? Why, how could they?”

He did not answer. He was not thinking of the robins and the sparrows. He was thinking of the gulls. . . .

He went upstairs and worked there the rest of the morning, boarding the windows of the bedrooms, filling up the chimney bases. Good that it was his free day and he was not working at the farm. It reminded him of the old days, at the beginning of the war. He was not married then, and he had made all the blackout boards for his mother’s house in Plymouth. Made the shelter too. Not that it had been of any use when the moment came. He wondered if they would take these precautions up at the farm. He doubted it. Too easygoing, Harry Trigg and his missus. Maybe they’d laugh at the whole thing. Go off to a dance or a whist drive.

“Dinner’s ready.” She called him, from the kitchen.

“All right. Coming down.”

He was pleased with his handiwork. The frames fitted nicely over the little panes and at the bases of the chimneys.

When dinner was over and his wife was washing up, Nat switched on the one o’clock news. The same announcement was repeated, the one which she had taken down during the morning, but the news bulletin enlarged upon it. “The flocks of birds have caused dislocation in all areas,” read the announcer, “and in London the sky was so dense at ten o’clock this morning that it seemed as if the city was covered by a vast black cloud.

“The birds settled on rooftops, on window ledges, and on chimneys. The species included blackbird, thrush, the common house sparrow, and, as might be expected in the metropolis, a vast quantity of pigeons and starlings and that frequenter of the London river, the black-headed gull. The sight has been so unusual that traffic came to a standstill in many thoroughfares, work was abandoned in shops and offices, and the streets and pavements were crowded with people standing about to watch the birds.”

Various incidents were recounted, the suspected reason of cold and hunger stated again, and warnings to householders repeated. The announcer’s voice was smooth and suave. Nat had the impression that this man, in particular, treated the whole business as he would an elaborate joke. There would be others like him, hundreds of them, who did not know what it was to struggle in darkness with a flock of birds. There would be parties tonight in London, like the ones they gave on election nights. People standing about, shouting and laughing, getting drunk. “Come and watch the birds!”

Nat switched off the wireless. He got up and started work on the kitchen windows. His wife watched him, young Johnny at her heels.

“What, boards for down here too?” she said. “Why, I’ll have to light up before three o’clock. I see no call for boards down here.”

“Better be sure than sorry,” answered Nat. “I’m not going to take any chances.”

“What they ought to do,” she said, “is to call the Army out and shoot the birds. That would soon scare them off.”

“Let them try,” said Nat. “How’d they set about it?”

“They have the Army to the docks,” she answered, “when the dockers strike. The soldiers go down and unload the ships.”

“Yes,” said Nat, “and the population of London is eight million or more. Think of all the buildings, all the flats and houses. Do you think they’ve enough soldiers to go around shooting birds from every roof?”

“I don’t know. But something should be done. They ought to do something.”

Nat thought to himself that “they” were no doubt considering the problem at that very moment, but whatever “they” decided to do in London and the big cities would not help the people here, three hundred miles away. Each householder must look after his own.

“How are we off for food?” he said.

“Now, Nat, whatever next?”

“Never mind. What have you got in the larder?”

“It’s shopping day tomorrow, you know that. I don’t keep uncooked food hanging about; it goes off. Butcher doesn’t call till the day after. But I can bring back something when I go in tomorrow.”

Nat did not want to scare her. He thought it possible that she might not go to town tomorrow. He looked in the larder for himself and in the cupboard where she kept her tins. They would do for a couple of days. Bread was low.

“What about the baker?”

“He comes tomorrow too.”

He saw she had flour. If the baker did not call she had enough to bake one loaf.

“We’d be better off in the old days,” he said, “when the women baked twice a week, and had pilchards7 salted, and there was food for a family to last a siege, if need be.”

“I’ve tried the children with tinned fish; they don’t like it,” she said.

Nat went on hammering the boards across the kitchen windows. Candles. They were low in candles too. That must be another thing she meant to buy tomorrow. Well, it could not be helped. They must go early to bed tonight. That was, if . . .

He got up and went out of the back door and stood in the garden, looking down toward the sea. There had been no sun all day, and now, at barely three o’clock, a kind of darkness had already come, the sky sullen, heavy, colorless like salt. He could hear the vicious sea drumming on the rocks. He walked down the path, halfway to the beach. And then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent. They made not a sound. They just went on soaring and circling, rising, falling, trying their strength against the wind.

Nat turned. He ran up the path, back to the cottage.

“I’m going for Jill,” he said. “I’ll wait for her at the bus stop.”

“What’s the matter?” asked his wife. “You’ve gone quite white.”

“Keep Johnny inside,” he said. “Keep the door shut. Light up now, and draw the curtains.”

“It’s only just gone three,” she said.

“Never mind. Do what I tell you.”

He looked inside the toolshed outside the back door. Nothing there of much use. A spade was too heavy, and a fork no good. He took the hoe. It was the only possible tool, and light enough to carry.

He started walking up the lane to the bus stop and now and again glanced back over his shoulder.

The gulls had risen higher now; their circles were broader, wider; they were spreading out in huge formation across the sky.

He hurried on; although he knew the bus would not come to the top of the hill before four o’clock, he had to hurry. He passed no one on the way. He was glad of this. No time to stop and chatter.

At the top of the hill he waited. He was much too soon. There was half an hour still to go. The east wind came whipping across the fields from the higher ground. He stamped his feet and blew upon his hands. In the distance he could see the clay hills, white and clean, against the heavy pallor of the sky. Something black rose from behind them, like a smudge at first, then widening, becoming deeper, and the smudge became a cloud, and the cloud divided again into five other clouds, spreading north, east, south, and west, and they were not clouds at all; they were birds. He watched them travel across the sky, and as one section passed overhead, within two or three hundred feet of him, he knew, from their speed, they were bound inland, upcountry; they had no business with the people here on the peninsula. They were rooks, crows, jackdaws, magpies, jays, all birds that usually preyed upon the smaller species; but this afternoon they were bound on some other mission.

“They’ve been given the towns,” thought Nat; “they know what they have to do. We don’t matter so much here. The gulls will serve for us. The others go to the towns.”

He went to the call box, stepped inside, and lifted the receiver. The exchange would do. They would pass the message on.

“I’m speaking from the highway,” he said, “by the bus stop. I want to report large formations of birds traveling upcountry. The gulls are also forming in the bay.”

“All right,” answered the voice, laconic, weary.

“You’ll be sure and pass this message on to the proper quarter?”

“Yes . . . yes . . .” Impatient now, fed up. The buzzing note resumed.

“She’s another,” thought Nat, “she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s had to answer calls all day. She hopes to go to the pictures tonight. She’ll squeeze some fellow’s hand and point up at the sky and say ‘Look at all them birds!’ She doesn’t care.”

The bus came lumbering up the hill. Jill climbed out, and three or four other children. The bus went on toward the town.

“What’s the hoe for, Dad?”

They crowded around him, laughing, pointing.

“I just brought it along,” he said. “Come on now, let’s get home. It’s cold, no hanging about. Here, you. I’ll watch you across the fields, see how fast you can run.”

He was speaking to Jill’s companions, who came from different families, living in the council houses. A shortcut would take them to the cottages.

“We want to play a bit in the lane,” said one of them.

“No, you don’t. You go off home or I’ll tell your mammy.”

They whispered to one another, round-eyed, then scuttled off across the fields. Jill stared at her father, her mouth sullen.

“We always play in the lane,” she said.

“Not tonight, you don’t,” he said. “Come on now, no dawdling.”

He could see the gulls now, circling the fields, coming in toward the land. Still silent. Still no sound.

“Look, Dad, look over there, look at all the gulls.”

“Yes. Hurry, now.”

“Where are they flying to? Where are they going?”

“Upcountry, I dare say. Where it’s warmer.”

He seized her hand and dragged her after him along the lane.

“Don’t go so fast. I can’t keep up.”

The gulls were copying the rooks and crows. They were spreading out in formation across the sky. They headed, in bands of thousands, to the four compass points.

“Dad, what is it? What are the gulls doing?”

They were not intent upon their flight, as the crows, as the jackdaws had been. They still circled overhead. Nor did they fly so high. It was as though they waited upon some signal. As though some decision had yet to be given. The order was not clear.

“Do you want me to carry you, Jill? Here, come pick-a-back.”

This way he might put on speed; but he was wrong. Jill was heavy. She kept slipping. And she was crying too. His sense of urgency, of fear, had communicated itself to the child.

“I wish the gulls would go away. I don’t like them. They’re coming closer to the lane.”

He put her down again. He started running, swinging Jill after him. As they went past the farm turning, he saw the farmer backing his car out of the garage. Nat called to him.

“Can you give us a lift?” he said.

“What’s that?”

Mr. Trigg turned in the driving seat and stared at them. Then a smile came to his cheerful, rubicund face.

“It looks as though we’re in for some fun,” he said. “Have you seen the gulls? Jim and I are going to take a crack at them. Everyone’s gone bird crazy, talking of nothing else. I hear you were troubled in the night. Want a gun?”

Nat shook his head.

The small car was packed. There was just room for Jill, if she crouched on top of petrol tins on the back seat.

“I don’t want a gun,” said Nat, “but I’d be obliged if you’d run Jill home. She’s scared of the birds.”

He spoke briefly. He did not want to talk in front of Jill.

“OK,” said the farmer, “I’ll take her home. Why don’t you stop behind and join the shooting match? We’ll make the feathers fly.”

Jill climbed in, and turning the car, the driver sped up the lane. Nat followed after. Trigg must be crazy. What use was a gun against a sky of birds?

Now Nat was not responsible for Jill, he had time to look about him. The birds were circling still above the fields. Mostly herring gull, but the black-backed gull amongst them. Usually they kept apart. Now they were united. Some bond had brought them together. It was the black-backed gull that attacked the smaller birds, and even newborn lambs, so he’d heard. He’d never seen it done. He remembered this now, though, looking above him in the sky. They were coming in toward the farm. They were circling lower in the sky, and the black-backed gulls were to the front, the black-backed gulls were leading. The farm, then, was their target. They were making for the farm.

Nat increased his pace toward his own cottage. He saw the farmer’s car turn and come back along the lane. It drew up beside him with a jerk.

“The kid has run inside,” said the farmer. “Your wife was watching for her. Well, what do you make of it? They’re saying in town the Russians have done it. The Russians have poisoned the birds.”

“How could they do that?” asked Nat.

“Don’t ask me. You know how stories get around. Will you join my shooting match?”

“No, I’ll get along home. The wife will be worried else.”

“My missus says if you could eat gull there’d be some sense in it,” said Trigg. “We’d have roast gull, baked gull, and pickle ’em into the bargain. You wait until I let off a few barrels into the brutes. That’ll scare ’em.”

“Have you boarded your windows?” asked Nat.

“No. Lot of nonsense. They like to scare you on the wireless. I’ve had more to do today than to go round boarding up my windows.”

“I’d board them now, if I were you.”

“Garn. You’re windy. Like to come to our place to sleep?”

“No, thanks all the same.”

“All right. See you in the morning. Give you a gull breakfast.”

The farmer grinned and turned his car to the farm entrance.

Nat hurried on. Past the little wood, past the old barn, and then across the stile to the remaining field.

As he jumped the stile he heard the whir of wings. A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again. In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed. Nat dropped his hoe. The hoe was useless. Covering his head with his arms, he ran toward the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings. The terrible, fluttering wings. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck. Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh. If only he could keep them from his eyes. Nothing else mattered. He must keep them from his eyes. They had not learned yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to rip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body. But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder. And they had no thought for themselves. When they dived low and missed, they crashed, bruised and broken, on the ground. As Nat ran he stumbled, kicking their spent bodies in front of him.

He found the door; he hammered upon it with his bleeding hands. Because of the boarded windows no light shone. Everything was dark.

“Let me in,” he shouted, “it’s Nat. Let me in.”

He shouted loud to make himself heard above the whir of the gulls’ wings.

Then he saw the gannet, poised for the dive, above him in the sky. The gulls circled, retired, soared, one after another, against the wind. Only the gannet remained. One single gannet above him in the sky. The wings folded suddenly to its body. It dropped like a stone. Nat screamed, and the door opened. He stumbled across the threshold, and his wife threw her weight against the door.

They heard the thud of the gannet as it fell.