The Birds Attack! Remembering Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds

My favorite writer, Daphne du Maurier, wrote the creepy novelette, “The Birds,” (1952) which Hitchcock made into one of his more famous films in 1963. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the story was an analogy of the terror that overtook the U.S. and European countries. The story presupposes the question, “what happens when birds—normally the symbol of peace—suddenly start attacking people?” While the story focuses on one farmer’s family, it’s a powerful metaphor for the tension and claustrophobia that people felt during bomb raids.

Now suppose we are living in one of du Maurier’s stories—and replace the Cold War with the underlying tension seeping out of diverse impacts from climate change, such as sea level rise and its effects on marshland in the Chesapeake Bay area
. The birds are at it again, attacking people…in wetlands. At a picnic in coastal Maine this past spring, some ballsy seagulls swooped down on our group and stole our veggie burgers right off the hot grill and out of one person’s hands. My friend, Josie, and I were once attacked by a mating pair of loons one summer while we were swimming. I took a loon in the armpit. Josie got beaked from the side. Loons aren’t the symbol of tranquility in my family; we call, “Loon torpedo!” when we see the famed black & white bird cruise into our swimming cove. People love loons. But loons don’t love people.

Meanwhile media reports have flitted in over the wires in several countries, U.S.A. included, suggesting an increase in bird-human encounters. However, bird attacks on people are so rare in numbers that often, it doesn’t make the news, and no one’s counting.

Mad mockingbirds! Crazy crows! Wrathful woodpeckers! Hawks in a huff! Black terns have been known to attack people who get too close, no matter the season. Red-winged blackbirds defend their nests aggressively when people walk into their habitat. Male red-winged blackbirds spend their mornings in February and March defending their marsh and they can get increasingly aggressive through the breeding season (June). Chicago was under redwing blackbird attack in 2008:,8599,1817833,00.html  As a means of defense, birds use scare tactics. Their aim is not to peck out someone’s eyes (as happened in du Maurier’s tale of terror!) but to scare, bluff and chase intruders away.  Gangs of grackles attacked pedestrians in Houston, leading law enforcement to close an entire street in 2005, a scene that was compared to the Hitchcock film.×3680438

What is causing birds to dive-bomb like B-52s? Experts have proposed a likely theory: Suburban sprawl has spread to woodsy and wetland areas with trees interspersed with human dwellings and community centers. Then again, it’s not just birds attacking people in wetlands—it’s also happening among the pecking order. And in some wetlands, the gulls are winning. Check out this bald eagle attacking a swan mid-flight last week in British Columbia: Don’t worry, the swan makes it. My favorite bird, the Great Blue Heron, has always fascinated me—but then I know its true power. With a forceful speed and grace, blue herons have attacked men who got too close. This description from a New York Times article about a historic heron attack in 1883 is something of a horror scene:

For those venturing into wetlands during the bird breeding seasons, take care. Here are some tips for living near swooping birds’ habitat during breeding season:
How to Live with Swooping Birds during Nesting Season (Florida)

What to do in case of a potential swooping bird attack:

  1. Avoid the “swoop” area—this is an open area between stands of trees, like a marsh, a wet meadow, but could also be a recreational park area.
  2. If riding a bike, wear a helmet, and if birds begin to swoop, get off the bike and walk it to safety. Swooping birds can cause a cyclist to have an accidental injury.
  3. Warn others. If there are others who might be unaware of swooping birds, such as children, let them know to be observant or to avoid the area, especially during certain birds’ breeding seasons.
  4. Travel in a group. Most birds only swoop down onto individuals.
  5. Be confident and face a swooping bird. Like tigers, birds tend to attack prey that are facing away from them.
  6. Do not panic and run. It will only encourage a bird to continue its attack.
  7. Wear a hat in the area where there are swooping birds.
  8. Paint “eyes” on the back of your hat. Wearing sunglasses on the back of a hat has the same effect.
  9. Holding a stick or umbrella over one’s head will deter a bird attack.
  10. Do not harass, interfere or throw stones at birds. This only makes them more aggressive and defensive, especially if they have nests nearby.
  11. Do not destroy nests.
  12. Do not feed or try to befriend swooping birds.

-List adapted from the Department of Sustainability, Victoria, Australia

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