“The Birds,” a story of great flocks of birds descending into England to attack people, presents human beings in conflict with nature itself. Du Maurier uses the story of a single, rural family—the Hockens, who are trying desperately to fend off the bird attacks—to illustrate humanity’s isolation within the natural world and humankind’s vulnerability to nature’s wrath.
While the birds are the primary force of the story’s violence, du Maurier is careful to situate the bird attacks in the context of general hostility from nature. The arrival of unusual numbers of birds coincides with sudden frigid temperatures, rough seas, and strong winds, creating a sense that the birds are part of a broader natural trend. Even before the birds’ attacks begin, Nat imagines that “a message comes to them” with the changing of the seasons, and observes that their aggression is linked to the rise and fall of the tide. He later reasons, “There was some law the birds obeyed, and it had to do with the east wind and the tide.” The birds are also united in their goal; even black-headed gulls, which Nat knows usually attack other birds and as such are typically “kept apart,” appear to be leading a mixed flock.
Du Maurier uses figurative language to further establish the birds as part of the natural world. Nat observes, “The smudge became a cloud; and the cloud divided again into five other clouds, spreading north, east, south, and west; and then they were not clouds at all but birds.” The radio announcer echoes this statement when he later says, “the mass was so dense at ten o’clock this morning that it seemed like a vast black cloud.” But while du Maurier configures the birds as a part of the natural world, she places human beings starkly outside of—and at odds with—the nature that surrounds them. For example, though the birds take their cues from the winds and the tide and they gain fury at night, Nat must battle the cold and the darkness to protect his family from the birds. Therefore, while “the cold did not affect the living birds, waiting out there in the fields” and the darkness seems to feed them, Nat and his family are being destroyed by nature.
Nature proceeds to isolate human beings even from each other, as the birds disrupt communication systems and leave Nat’s family entirely on its own. When Nat tries to make a phone call outside Mr. Trigg’s house, the line is dead. Du Maurier heightens the Hockens’ isolation by suggesting that this is a world-wide catastrophe, as Nat’s wife is unable to find “anything but the crackling” of static coming from domestic and foreign radio stations alike.
The radio is simply one of many technologies that fail human beings in their struggle against nature. In “The Birds,” the very thing that has broken human history into ages—tools of stone, bronze, etc.—proves useless in the face of nature’s rage. Because our ability to create and use sophisticated tools is one of the main ways in which human beings separate themselves from other animals, the story’s rejection of technology is a rejection of human identity itself. Everything from Nat’s simple hoe, to Mr. Trigg’s guns, to the military’s planes are useless against the birds’ onslaught. Nat literally calls his hoe “useless,” and deems the fighter planes a “waste of life and effort.” He also believes Mr. Trigg’s bombastic attempt to shoot at the birds is “crazy,” asking, “What use was a gun against a sky of birds?” In the end, the birds themselves become a machine more powerful than any humans have created, as a “million years of memory” bestows them with an “instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”
This instinct differentiates the apocalypse at the story’s heart from the usual narrative of natural disasters, wherein events like hurricanes and tsunamis are regarded as tragedies devoid of intent. “The Birds”, meanwhile, presents nature as an explicitly malevolent force that is targeting human beings. Nat believes the birds are following specific orders about where and what to attack, and that they “know what they have to do.” Additionally, though Mr. Trigg’s entire household is killed, the cows and sheep in his field remain conspicuously unharmed, suggesting that the birds are discerning in their prey, and focused only on killing humans. The birds are so intent upon reaching people that hundreds of them sacrifice their bodies in the process; mere fear or hunger must not be the driving force behind their attacks if they willingly die in pursuit of their prey. Imagery of the birds blocking the sun and bringing darkness across the land echoes also biblical punishment, further positioning the birds’ attack as a sort of reckoning for human sins. In this way, humanity is set as being alone in a harsh and even antagonistic universe, unable to truly master nature or, if it turns against us, even survive it.
Man vs. Nature ThemeTracker
Man vs. Nature Quotes in The Birds
Nat gazed at the little corpses, shocked and horrified. They were all small birds, none of any size; there must have been fifty of them lying there upon the floor. There were robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings, birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining one with another in their urge for battle, had destroyed themselves against the bedroom walls or in the strife had been destroyed by him. Some had lost feathers in the fight; others had blood, his blood, upon their beaks.
The announcer’s voice was smooth and suave. Nat had the impression that this man, in particular, treated the whole business as he would an elaborate joke. There would be others like him, hundreds of them, who did not know what it was to struggle in darkness with a flock of birds.
“I don’t want a gun,” said Nat, “but I’d be obliged if you’d run Jill home. She’s scared of the birds.”
He spoke briefly. He did not want to talk in front of Jill.
“OK,” said the farmer, “I’ll take her home. Why don’t you stop behind and join the shooting match? We’ll make the feathers fly.”
Jill climbed in, and turning the car, the driver sped up the lane. Nat followed after. Trigg must be crazy.
What use was a gun against a sky of birds?
There was no further drone of aircraft, and the naval guns had ceased. “Waste of life and effort,” Nat said to himself. “We can’t destroy enough of them that way. Cost too heavy. There’s always gas. Maybe they’ll try spraying with gas, mustard gas. We’ll be warned first, of course, if they do. There’s one thing, the best brains of the country will be onto it tonight.”
There was some law the birds obeyed, and it was all to do with the east wind and the tide.
Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.