On the third of December in a quiet, seaside town, the season shifts abruptly from autumn to winter. Nat Hocken, a disabled veteran who works part-time on a farm, observes that there seem to be more birds than usual clamoring restlessly over the sea. He muses that they must receive a message each autumn that winter is coming, and he compares their behavior to human beings driven to “work or folly” in the face of death.
Nat tells the farmer Mr. Trigg about the birds, and Mr. Trigg asserts that the weather must be causing the birds’ behavior—they must know that winter is coming and that the season will be a hard one. Just as Mr. Trigg predicts, the weather turns that night.
This is the first of many incidents in which characters blame the birds’ behavior on the shift in weather, failing to ascribe their restlessness to anything out of the ordinary. This is also the first introduction to Mr. Trigg, and it already hints at his stubborn refusal to think the birds’ behavior is a threat.
At home in his cottage that night, Nat wakes up to the east wind whipping outside. Hearing a rapping on his windowpane, he opens the window and something sharp grazes his knuckle, drawing blood. He watches a bird flutter back outside and, thinking the wind must have disoriented it, Nat closes the window and returns to bed.
Nat’s first violent encounter with a bird is marked by his opening of a window, echoing his lack of concern over the threat the birds pose. His willingness to open the window in an attempt to shoo the bird away contrasts with his later fervor to secure his cottage from entry.
The rapping sound returns and when Nat opens the window to investigate, a half dozen birds fly at his face. He drives them out and then hears a cry from his children’s room. Their window is wide open and their bedroom is filled with birds, which are fluttering around and then diving to attack the children. Beating back the birds with a blanket, Nat kills many of them until the dawn breaks and the birds fly away.
This second attack begins to dispel for Nat the notion that the birds’ behavior is no cause for concern. The violent tussle in the children’s bedroom gives Nat his first real glimpse of the danger his family is in. It’s also notable that the birds flee not in response to Nat fighting them, but rather in response to the dawn—just as they came when the weather turned, they seem responsive to natural patterns like daylight and darkness.
The morning is exceptionally cold, the sea seems wilder, and the frost has the “black look…that the east wind brings.” Nat’s son is sleeping, but his face is bloodied from the birds. Though Nat tries to reassure his wife that the sudden cold snap and east wind are to blame for the birds’ behavior, she doesn’t believe him—the weather has just turned, so the birds wouldn’t be desperate for food yet. While walking his daughter Jill to the bus stop, Nat looks for the birds but doesn’t see them.
The elements have turned even more hostile, increasing the story’s creeping sense of doom. The mention of “black frost” implies that this sudden winter will not be friendly to farmers like Nat. Assertions that the weather is to blame for the birds’ behavior grow ever more thin and foolish-sounding.
Though he does not have work that day, Nat stops by the farm to check that all is well. He 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 and suggesting Nat write to the newspaper for an answer. She also posits that the cold snap is coming from Russia. Jim, a cowhand, is similarly unconcerned. Nat reflects that, like “air raids in the war,” the bird attacks are something one must witness for oneself to understand.
Nat and his wife seem to be the only characters in the story who appreciate the threat the birds present. The reader knows how dangerous the birds can be, and as such recognizes the hubris that Mrs. Trigg and Jim display in dismissing the attacks. Nat’s evocation of air raids connects the story to war and foreshadows the battles to come.
Nat returns home and, at the urging of his wife, clears the children’s bedroom of dead birds. The ground is frozen solid, so he carries the carcasses to the shore to bury. There, he sees thousands of gulls hovering over the sea. He thinks that “someone should be told,” but he worries his warnings would be dismissed as the ramblings of a mad man.
This puts into perspective the enormous size of the foe human beings are up against. Nat’s worry that his warnings would be dismissed again invokes human hubris, as it evidences the hesitance of human beings to believe that their dominion over the natural world could be challenged.
Back at the cottage, a radio broadcast relays that an enormous flock of birds has brought London to a halt. The announcer urges families to remain indoors and suggests that weather and hunger are to blame for the birds’ behavior. Nat is ecstatic to have his observations validated, and he begins boarding up the cottage. As he does so, he remembers boarding up his mother’s house during the war. He reflects that the Triggs will likely refuse to take the same precautions. Later, following another radio broadcast about the attacks, Nat resents the announcer’s lighthearted tone and predicts that many others will refuse to take the birds seriously.
This is the first indication that the attacks are happening far beyond Nat’s small town. Du Maurier again draws a connection between these attacks and the air raids of the war, while highlighting the hubris of those who fail to appreciate the threat the birds represent. The radio takes a symbolic turn here. At first, the radio makes Nat feel validated and connected to others, as his experiences are shared and his speculations about the birds are confirmed. However, the second broadcast is far less comforting—the announcer’s tone makes Nat feel even more alone, as he realizes that other people are not taking the precautions he is.
Nat’s wife insists that the army should do something about the birds, though Nat believes they would not be able to help. He further reflects that his family must look after itself. His wife then tells Nat they have little food or supplies in the cottage, because her designated shopping day has not yet arrived. Reflecting on “the old days” when families had food stocked away for a “siege,” Nat resents his wife’s lack of preparedness, fearing it will be too late the following day to leave the cottage.
Du Maurier further isolates Nat’s family from the outside world while also demonstrating Nat’s growing survivalism. The reference to a “siege” again echoes the language of war and heightens the sense of dread regarding a battle to come. The fact that the family is ill-prepared due to Nat’s wife’s shopping schedule highlights the absurdity and fragility of man-made order.
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. He grabs a hoe from the cottage as a weapon and then rushes to pick up Jill from the bus stop. On the way, he calls the operator from a phone box to relay what he is seeing; she, too, seems utterly unconcerned by his warning. Jill arrives on the bus and Nat observes that the gulls seem to be awaiting some sort of signal. As the birds begin to swarm, the two run to the farm, where Mr. Trigg agrees to drive Jill the rest of the way home.
Nat now fully appreciates the danger his family is in, and he starts piecing together what order, if any, the birds are following. As the tide turning seems to activate the gulls, Du Maurier is giving clearer and clearer clues that the birds are tied into natural rhythms. Human hubris is once again on display in Nat’s conversation with the phone operator.
Mr. Trigg returns and makes light of Nat’s fear, insisting it is a waste of time to board up his house and offering Nat a gun. Nat reflects, “What use was a gun against a sky of birds?” Mr. Trigg wonders if the Russians have poisoned the birds. Nat hurries home as the swarm of birds begin to dive, cutting Nat with their beaks and claws. Nat drops his hoe and makes it inside only seconds before a gannet would have split his skull.
Mr. Trigg’s pride is again on display, and his refusal to board up his home hints at the danger to come to him and his family. Nat’s rejection of the gun and hoe reflect the failure of human technology to fight against nature. This is the most violent encounter with the birds yet, and it raises the stakes of the story as Nat is almost killed.
Nat’s wife dresses his wounds and wonders why the army is not involved. Nat says it is because they were not prepared for this situation. 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.
Nat’s wife has yet to lose her faith that others will come save her, even as Nat shows increasing disillusionment with human institutions. The hammering of the cottage is reminiscent of the aforementioned air raids. Nat’s insistence on distracting his family echoes his initial observation that both the birds and human beings “drive themselves to work or folly” in the face of death.
Nat tells his family that they are “snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter.” He begins to work out what supplies they will need to survive for a few days, still hoping that further instructions will come through on the radio. They turn the wireless on and listen as the announcer declares a state of national emergency. His voice is now “solemn, grave. Quite different from midday.” The station goes on to play the national anthem, and Nat reflects that “There won’t be any more programs tonight …There’s been a breakdown at the BBC.”
Du Maurier now creates a direct comparison between the Hocken’s situation and air-raid shelters during the war, echoing the violence and power of nature. The change in the radio announcer’s tone reveals that he—and, likely, others—have finally come to appreciate the danger they are in. Nat’s recognition that there will be no more radio announcements that evening reveals both the continued failure of human systems and the isolation of Nat’s family.
Nat helps with supper, whistling and singing all the time in order to distract his family. He reflects the birds have “reasoning powers” and that “they know it’s hard to break in here. They’ll try elsewhere.” The Hockens then hear 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.”
Nat continues to drive himself to “work” and “folly” (as he accused the birds of doing in the beginning of the story) in order to distract his family from the birds. His belief that the birds will eventually bypass his house suggests he is clinging to reason in the face of chaos, perhaps unjustifiably, since the birds do not, in fact, seem to be rational (their motivation is completely mysterious). The immediate destruction of the military planes is another example of both the hubris of mankind and failure of technology in the face of nature’s wrath.
Nat thinks about what next steps the military will take, and takes comfort in the belief that “the best minds in the country will be on it tonight.” He reflects on the potential use of mustard gas, though admits it would lead to widespread land contamination. Above all, he believes that “people losing their heads” will be the real danger.
Nat has yet to entirely lose faith in the power of human ingenuity to overcome nature. His references to mustard gas and contamination further evoke war in that they echo the use of nuclear bombs in World War II as well as Cold War nuclear proliferation. Finally, his belief that people panicking is the real problem suggests he is still putting too much faith in the power of manmade order to triumph over chaos.
The bird attacks finally quiet, causing Nat to realize that they are linked to the rise and fall of the tide. Reasoning that he has six hours before the next attack, Nat’s “mind was busy again, planning against emergency.” He goes outside and, in the cold and darkness, fortifies the cottage windows by stuffing cracked panes with the bodies of dead birds that killed themselves in their desperate attempts to get inside.
Du Maurier establishes the birds as part of the natural world through their connection with the tide. Nat’s survivalism continues to spur his actions. The huge number of birds committing kamikaze-style attacks suggests the depth of their urge to reach human beings, as well as the lack of reason behind their actions.
Nat returns to bed, only to realize he has forgotten 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. Nat reflects that people living in newer houses nearby do not have the “small windows” and “stout walls” of his cottage, and are in great danger. As Jill starts to cry, he instructs his wife to make tea and cocoa, thinking, “Keep her busy, and the children too. Move about, eat, drink; always best to be on the go.”
Nat thinks that he will soon need to get more fuel for the fire. As the family eats, he also notices that they are down to half a loaf of bread. The children cheer at the sound of more birds killing themselves in their dives at the cottage. Nat then smokes one of his two final cigarettes, saying he will keep the other “for a rainy day.”
The Hockens’ dwindling supplies reveal the ever-increasing danger of their situation. Du Maurier allows a moment of respite for the characters before further building the tension of the tale.
The incessant tapping of the birds resumes and Nat realizes that birds have broken into the bedrooms upstairs. He barricades the door, careful to keep his family unaware of the breach. Nat again worries about how unprepared his family is, and wonders about driving away from the countryside between tides. 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, fearing that if it dies they won’t hear any “instructions.”
Nat continues his increasingly foolish attempts to distract his family from the peril of their situation. His faith in human ingenuity—both his own and others’—remains, even as it becomes clear that his family is completely on its own, and that no instructions or outside help is coming. At this point, the radio has completely failed them—not only are radio broadcasts not coming, but also the radio might run out of batteries. The family is now fully isolated in their home.
At the next lull in battle, Nat and his family go 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. Jim is in the yard, his body trampled and his gun beside him, Mr. Trigg lies by the phone, and Mrs. Trigg is dead upstairs alongside an umbrella. The Triggs’ sheep and cows, meanwhile, remain alive.
The death of the Triggs serves as a comeuppance for their previous hubris. It also suggests that the same fate has befallen other families that did not heed the warnings. That Mr. Trigg is found by the phone suggests he did try to call for help at the end, but it was too late. Jim’s gun and Mrs. Trigg’s umbrella are yet more instances of the futility of human technology. The fact that the farm animals haven’t been killed reveals that the birds are only targeting human beings.
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. He tries the telephone box, but the line is dead. There is no smoke from any chimneys nearby either, causing Nat to realize all his neighbors are likely dead. Nat’s children laugh at the bouncing of the car on their final ride home, their voices contrasting sharply with the horror of their situation.
The birds have robbed Nat of the chance to mourn the Triggs, suggesting the dehumanization of war. Du Maurier has completely isolated the Hockens at this point, from both nature and other human beings.
Nat begins to unload his new supplies, cursing “the inefficiency of the authorities” as he does so. While working on the roof, he looks out to sea and spots what he thinks are Navy ships. To his horror, he then realizes that he is actually seeing thousands of gulls, rising with the tide.
By connecting the gulls to the Navy, du Maurier creates the sense that the birds are an army as powerful as any created by man. The Hockens’ survival seems ever more unlikely.
The Hockens listen to the radio, which continues to play only static, even on foreign stations. This leads Nat to suggest the attacks are happening across Europe. Nat’s wife then pours “out a plateful of the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.” When “a piece of the dripping” runs down Johnny’s chin, Jill scolds him: “Manners, Johnny.”
The loss of radio contact signifies not only the utter isolation of the Hockens, but also the ultimate disintegration of man-made order in the face of the chaos the birds represent. The repeated use of “Triggs’” to describe the Hockens’ dinner emphasizes the horror of war, as the family has been forced to steal and eat their dead neighbors’ food to survive. Jill’s scolding of her brother in the face of near-certain death reveals the absurdity of human manners.
Nat muses about organizing the new supplies and subsequent steps he will take to fortify the cottage, even as hawks begin to hammer at the cottage door. The door begins to splinter and tear. Nat tells his wife he will smoke his final cigarette. He tosses the empty packet onto the fire.
Nat’s survivalism continues almost to the very end. However, the fact that he decides to smoke his last cigarette—the one he had previously been saving for a “rainy day”— suggests that he has come to accept the inevitability of death. Rather than continue to drive himself to “work or folly” as distraction, he simply allows himself a moment of meaningless pleasure.