Feathered ‘fiend’ has long played on our fears

By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries

PULLMAN, Wash. – It’s Halloween, when this Washington State University Libraries patron’s mind turns to things that go bump – or, in this case, flap – in the night from a literary and not-so-literary point of view. This year, the subject is birds, the stuff of nightmares for many since Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” was released in 1963.

Turns out birds have raised goose bumps (pun intended) long before the Master of Suspense. In fact, Wikimedia has a “legendary birds” category that lists 119 specific names of birds representing different cultures, nationalities, religions and levels of scariness.

So while you’re wondering whether that tapping at the window is just a tree branch or a murderous bird, enjoy a review of one recent library and Internet avian search.

Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’

Edgar Allan Poe. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

“Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’” This infamous line shivered its way up the nation’s spine in 1845 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of a man mourning the loss of his beloved Lenore – and the talking raven that eventually drives him mad.

Much has been argued about why Poe chose a raven. One article published in “American Notes & Queries,” written by S.L. Varnado of Valdosta State College in November 1968, explains that Poe might have taken information about the raven and its connections with superstitions and evil from the 1834 book “The Darker Superstitions of Scotland” by Scottish naturalist John Graham Dalyell.

John R. Neill’s illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in “The Raven and other Poems.” ( Photo Chicago: The Reilly & Britton Co, 1910 via Wikimedia Commons)

“According to Dalyell, ravens were thought to indicate the presence of demons,” Varnado wrote. “Likewise, the devil was thought to appear to his proselytes in the guise of a raven. Poe seems to make use of the same idea when his narrator refers to the bird as ‘thing of evil,’ ‘bird or devil’ and ‘tempter sent.’ Moreover the eyes of the raven ‘have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.’”

A WSU scholar, John F. Adams, described several of the raven’s attributes through mythological traditions in the December 1972 issue of “Poe Studies.” Among these are “bestial appetite” in Hebrew folklore, as well as “intelligence and power” in Norse mythology. But the Greeks contributed one of the most compelling foundations for Poe’s raven.

“Classical mythology has Pallas, the embodiment of wisdom, as the raven’s original master, a tradition Poe evidently drew upon in perching his raven on her white bust,” Adams wrote.

Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’

Hitchcock fans have English author Daphne du Maurier to thank for their ornithophobia this time of year. The filmmaker loosely based his horror film “The Birds” on du Maurier’s short story by the same name, published in 1952. In some respects, the written work is more terrifying than the film.

The young Daphne du Maurier. (Photo courtesy of the Chichester Partnership (copyright), University of Exeter (publication), copyrighted free use https://commons. wikimedia.org/w/ index.php?curid= 9012971)

The short story is set in a Cornish seaside village after World War II, centering on farmhand Nat Hocken and his family, the apparent sole survivors of mysterious bird attacks that start after a sudden weather change in December.

Before the attacks, Hocken, a bird watcher, reflects on the restlessness of birds as the weather turns cold: “Perhaps … a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise.”

In the end, only the observant Hocken manages to barricade the family home before the birds can kill him, his wife and their two young children. Through the boarded-up windows and door, “…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.”

‘The Birds’ on the silver screen

Du Maurier’s short story got the Hollywood treatment for Hitchcock’s visual rendition of “The Birds.” Instead of a nameless Cornish village, the movie takes place in the northern California coastal town of Bodega Bay, an hour and a half from San Francisco.

The main protagonist, a socialite named Melanie Daniels, is no weathered farmhand. Daniels is played by the comely Tippi Hedren, discovered by Hitchcock after he saw her in a television commercial. (Also in the film is child actor Veronica Cartwright, who would appear in another horror film in 1979 as one of the doomed crew members of the spacecraft Nostromo in “Alien.”)

Theatrical poster for the film “The Birds,” 1963. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

All glamour and Edith Head couture are forgotten once the birds start to attack. Daniels is struck first by a seagull at the beginning of the film. More attacks follow, with children as targets at a birthday party and at school, before the birds turn their sights on the residents of Bodega Bay.

Before the film ends, Daniels is severely injured in another attack at the weekend house of lawyer Mitch Brenner, who rescues her in the nick of time. Together with Brenner’s mother and young sister, they flee Bodega Bay for medical help in San Francisco.

Amid the carnage, one lone character defends the birds, the incongruous ornithologist Mrs. Bundy: “Birds are not aggressive creatures,” she says to Daniels. “They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet … Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx 140 million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a war against humanity?”

Poisoned birds are not murderous birds

Hitchcock had another inspiration for his film besides du Maurier’s story. In August 1961, seabirds called sooty shearwaters slammed into homes in California’s Monterey Bay for no apparent reason. They appeared to be disoriented, regurgitating fish and dying in the thousands.

Days later, the filmmaker, who was a summer resident nearby and had read an account of the event, contacted a local newspaper about using the report as research for “The Birds.”

Tundra, a resident snowy owl at WSU’s Raptor Rehabilitation Program, with Mindy Lynn, a zoology major and member of the WSU Raptor Club. (Photo by Henry Moore Jr., CVM/BCU, Washington State University)

Then in 1991, the same die-off with brown pelicans occurred, except researchers found the cause: the birds had eaten fish whose stomachs contained large amounts of the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia, which produces domoic acid. The acid acts as a neurotoxin, causing confusion, seizures, coma and death in birds and mammals.

Was it possible that the 1961 birds had been similarly poisoned? Louisiana State University researcher Sibel Bargu and a team proved that they were. Their work was published in early 2012 in the journal “Nature Geoscience.”

“In the absence of water samples, we examined archival samples of herbivorous zooplankton – which feed on diatoms and are preyed on by sea turtles and some fish and birds – collected during ship surveys at the time,” according to the journal article. “By analyzing the gut contents of these animals, we were able to reconstruct regional flora. Toxin-producing species of Pseudo-nitzschia accounted for 79 percent of the diatoms present in the guts of these organisms.”

With all due respect to Poe, du Maurier and Hitchcock, it’s time to embrace our feathered “fiends.” A great place to start locally is the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Raptor Rehabilitation Program, which provides medical care, food and shelter to sick or injured birds, returning them to the wild whenever possible. Birds that cannot be released are cared for at the college and participate in public education programs through the nonprofit WSU Raptor Club.

For more information, see http://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/outreach/raptors.