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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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