On the third of December in a quiet, seaside town, the season shifts abruptly from autumn to winter. Nat Hocken, a war veteran and farmhand with a disability, observes that there seem to be more birds than usual clamoring restlessly over the sea. Upon finishing his work for the day, Nat tells the farmer Mr. Trigg about the birds. Mr. Trigg asserts that the weather must be causing the birds’ behavior, and predicts it will be a hard winter.
That evening, Nat awakens to an insistent tapping on his window. Upon opening it, half a dozen birds swarm about his face. Nat scatters them away with his arms, only to hear cries coming from his children’s bedroom. He rushes to their room to find the window open and dozens of birds diving about in attack. Nat ushers the children out of the room before wrapping a blanket around himself and fighting with the birds until dawn. When day breaks, fifty birds lie dead on the floor.
The next morning Nat insists to his wife that the sudden cold snap and east wind are to blame for the birds’ behavior. He sees his daughter Jill onto the school bus and then visits the farm to check on the Triggs. When Nat tells Mrs. Trigg of the previous evening’s battle with the birds, she is dismissive of his story, positing that it was simply the weather. Jim, a cowhand, is similarly unconcerned.
Nat returns home to collect the bodies of the dead birds, but cannot bury them because the ground has frozen solid. He brings the bodies to the shore, where he sees thousands of gulls hovering over the sea. Back at his cottage, a radio announcement informs Nat and his wife that the attacks are happening across the country. Nat proceeds to board up the cottage windows and fill up its chimney bases. Hours later, another broadcast relays that an enormous flock of birds has brought London to a halt. Nat resents the announcer’s lighthearted tone, and predicts that many will refuse to take the attacks seriously.
Nat walks partway to the beach to find that the tide has turned and that the gulls have begun circling as if ready to attack. Alarmed, he rushes to pick up Jill from the bus stop. As the birds begin to swarm, the two run to the farm, where Nat asks Mr. Trigg to drive Jill the rest of the way home. Mr. Trigg does so but makes light of Nat’s fear, insisting it is a waste of time to board up his house. The swarm of birds begin to dive at Nat as he runs home, making it inside only seconds before a gannet would have split his skull.
The Hockens huddle together in their cottage as hundreds of birds hammer against the windows and roof. Nat attempts to distract his family from the peril of their situation by singing and whistling as he further secures the inside of the cottage. That evening, the radio announcer declares a state of national emergency and urges people to barricade themselves indoors.
Following supper, the family hears the drone of planes and gunfire heading toward the sea. Though Nat’s wife and children are heartened at the thought of military aid, Nat understands subsequent crashing noises to be the sounds of the planes falling into the water. He internally laments the “waste of life and effort.” When the bird attacks finally quiet, Nat realizes that they are linked to the high tide. Reasoning that he has six hours before the next attack, he goes outside and, in the cold and darkness, fortifies the cottage windows by stuffing cracked panes with the bodies of dead birds. Only after going back to bed does he realize he forgot to light a fire to keep the birds out of the chimney; he quickly relights the fire, burning the birds already attempting to force their way down. He then smokes one of his two final cigarettes.
The incessant tapping of the birds resumes, and Nat realizes that some have broken into the bedrooms upstairs. He barricades the door. The family anxiously awaits a promised 7:00 a.m. news bulletin, but when Nat’s wife turns on the radio nothing comes through but static. Nat wonders how much longer the radio battery will last.
At the next lull in battle, Nat and his family drive to the Triggs’ farm to get much-needed food and supplies. There Nat finds that the entire Trigg household has been killed by the birds. With no time to mourn, Nat gathers what he can over the course of three trips, and loads everything into his cottage shortly before the tide turns. The radio continues to play only static, even on foreign stations, leading Nat to suggest that the attacks are happening across Europe. As Nat muses about organizing the new supplies and subsequent steps he will take to fortify the cottage, hawks hammer at the door. The wood begins to splinter and tear, and Nat tells his wife he will smoke his final cigarette. He tosses the empty packet onto the fire.