THE BIRDS – AN EERIE TALE

Susan Vaughan here with an eerie tale although early for Halloween. Decades ago (I won’t say how many), I was a graduate student at Rice University in Houston, Texas. A short walk from my apartment complex took me daily to the lovely campus with its unique architecture and tree-lined paths. Although Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Birds had been released several years earlier, in 1963, I watched it this particular fall with friends at a theater that showed older movies. So the movie plot was fresh in my mind when later eerie events unfolded.

Rice buildings

But first, a little background. “The Birds,” was published in 1952 in British author Daphne du Maurier’s collection The Apple Tree in 1952, and the book was reissued the same year the film was released.

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Her story was the inspiration for the Hitchcock film. “The Birds” is set in du Maurier’s native Cornwall shortly after the end of World War II. A farm hand notices larger than usual flocks of seagulls wheeling over the plowed fields. During the night mixed flocks of birds attack his house, breaking windows and frightening the children. As the story progresses, massive flights of birds attack larger and larger areas, and a national emergency is declared. Her reference to the “east wind” was a warning of the coming Communist threat and the Cold War that might put Great Britain under attack again. When I read this story a few years ago, I took away a different warning than the one she intended. My conclusion was a more ecological one, that if we don’t take care of our world, it will attack us.

But I digress. Back to Hitchcock and The Birds. In August 1961, seabirds died en masse on the rooftops and streets of a small California town. The cause appeared to be shellfish poisoning. It was apparently this event that led Hitchcock to develop a more elaborate plot for his film, but one that kept du Maurier’s title and concept of unexplained bird attacks.

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The Birds focuses on sudden bird attacks on the people of a small California town over the course of a few days. The movie was Tippi Hedren’s debut, and also featured Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy, among others. I vividly recall the scene where Tippi’s character watches in horror as birds cause a gas station fire and a horrific death. Today’s special effects with CGI that make the unreal so real are a far cry from the primitive ones in The Birds, but back then, the creepy birds terrified me. Hitchcock offers no explanation or even a theory for the birds’ bizarre and diabolical behavior, but I wonder if he’d leave that question hanging today.

What does this have to do with me and the campus of Rice University? Remember, I’d watched the movie recently so it was fresh in my mind as I walked to classes on a cool fall morning. Cool for Houston, probably in the low 80’s.

Rice campus

Under the trees, on the paths, almost everywhere lay dead and dying birds. Robins, starlings, others I didn’t recognize. Students gasped and exclaimed and giggled nervously and made awkward jokes. A crow dropped out of a tree in front of me. Your heart can leap into your throat, believe me. All I could think of was that we were in the middle of The Birds, and although these specimens were dead, others could attack—soon! Yes, eerie. Of course that didn’t happen.

I learned later what had likely caused the deaths. Dozens of migratory bird species stop in and around Houston every fall to rest, many of them roosting in trees at Rice. This particular fall, parasites were attacking the trees, so the groundskeepers, not considering the migrating birds, had sprayed the foliage. Thus the sudden deaths. The spraying was halted immediately, and rains mitigated the danger to the next arriving flocks.

I still think my takeaway from Daphne du Maurier’s story about the coming threat might be appropriate.

**** New release! My romantic suspense novel Always a Suspect, a prequel to the Task Force Eagle trilogy, is only 99 cents for a short time.

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13 Responses to THE BIRDS – AN EERIE TALE

  1. Jewel Hanley says:

    The Birds movie haunted me for weeks. I thought the setting could be anyplace on the coast of New England. Birds dropping out of the air. . .well I might not be here to write this. Fun read. I didn’t know this was from a book, now I want to read it — maybe. It’s still a scary premise, isn’t it.

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  2. Karla says:

    Wow. What parallel stories. Maybe there is no fiction. Just interpretation. Thanks for yours.

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  3. MCWriTers says:

    Sad story. But, then, most scary stories are …. Thanks for sharing, Susan! Lea Wait

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  4. Interesting tale, Susan. The movie sure was a fright, and I can see why it would have alarmed you to see all those poor dead birds shortly after seeing it.

    And you are right about the need to take care of our planet.

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  5. Just thinking about the movie brings many of the scenes to mind (yeah, thanks for that, Susan). The spookiest scene for me was when Tippi was walking toward the school and the birds, I think they were crows, were roosting on the playground equipment and electric wires, quietly watching. I found the silent menace quite disturbing.

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  6. Laurie Evans says:

    Wow, that is creepy!

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  7. Hey, Susan. Love this post! I’m not sure I ever watched the movie, The Birds. Of course I’ve seen snippets of it. Sometime in the last several years–five or less, we’ve had this huge influx in the number of large black birds. It’s like they’re meeting in convention. They congregate along light poles and power lines and fill the trees. Some of the trees are harmed by the massive invasion. Lots of business have installed horns that sound off every so often trying to keep them from settling in. On more than one occasion in the grocery store parking lot, I’ve had the sensation of being in the movie, The Birds. It’s truly unnerving. Thanks for this post. I’ll share.

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  8. PS. I almost wish I wrote ScFi, think I could do something with the whole global warming thing. LOL Not a laughing matter, unfortunately.

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  9. Deb says:

    Susan,

    Loved the way you wove this story, between fiction and fact, and as another person mentioned, interpretation. Yes, scary things will come if we don’t take care of our planet. Right now my deck is covered in chunks of hail after a vicious 5:30 a.m. thunder storm on October 17 – I couldn’t believe I was hearing thunder this late in the season.

    My memories of the Birds was watching the movie on the weekend of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It was my girl friend’s 16th birthday and we were waiting for our dates (we both ended up marrying those dates) to arrive to take us out to dinner. By the time they arrived, Washington, DC had placed a curfew on the city and the guys had to spend the night. So for our “date” we ended up in her rec room watching the birds. Scary movies are always great for cuddling until both our mothers hovered and gave us no privacy 🙂 My mom and sister also had to spend the night when they tried to drop me off. My house was only blocks from the rioting and fires. So The Birds holds many memories, and equates to me the other national emergencies we face around violence and inequality and hatred and racial and ethnic and many other prejudices.

    Thanks for a great post. I just purchased your prequel. Can’t wait to read it.

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