Over the years, in my moves across Rome and to the countryside, where my house teeters on the edge of a wild gorge, I have tried to keep track of local birds and the way they clock the seasons. The nightingale arrives in March when the weather is still chilly, filling nights with her thrilling songs. Swifts and swallows, less numerous now than they once were, sweep and circle Aprilís blue skies. Regal hoopoes with their feathery crowns and hungry, fat pheasants appear in late spring in the long grass in the fields. Cuckoos signal summer. The shrieks of owls embroider the edges of long November evenings at the fireside. And yet, in the city and in the countryside, bird populations are shrinking in Italy. According to recent statistics swifts have been reduced by 40% and general songbirds by 52%. Now you hear only a few peeps at dawn.
Different factors have been blamed for the decimation of birds in Europe. The use of pesticides -- which kill the bugs that feed the birds, the expansion of agriculture, the draining of wetland, vanishing habitat, West Nile virus -- here too, and even the changing climate are contributing to the 'silent spring' foreseen by environmentalist writer Rachel Carson in the sixties. Still some birds thrive immune to these negative influences, like crows and starlings, while legions of seagulls have moved in, nesting on rooftops of urban apartment buildings far from any water. Now in Rome I wake to the cries of gulls. "You'd think we were in Brest," says my husband, and not in our very proletarian Roman quartiere closer to the mountains than the sea.
But the stars of the local bird show are definitely the starlings decorating the sky from autumn till spring with their psychedelic geometrical patterns. Wonderful to watch at a distance, it can be disconcerting when they pass over your head, as in the video I took with an iPad from my balcony in Rome. Though at times they may be a nuisance ó for weeks streets and sidewalks are covered in thick layers of gooey guano deposited by the prodigious starling flocks roosting in the pines. As I struggle through the slime, looking up at those placid fowls plunked on branches, I sometimes wonder what would happen though if they should suddenly attack?
In many religions birds -- doves, crows, herons, roosters, hummingbirds -- have played a sacred role. Their capacity for flight, their swiftness, ability to reproduce human sounds, their powers of vision have always been revered as preternatural. Many superstitions link birds with death, the spirits of the dead, or rebirth. As descendants of the dinosaur Archaeopteryx, they hearken back to very ancient times on our planet. For the Etruscans, they were a means of divination, a connection between earth and sky, men and gods. They are powerful archetypes arising from the depths of the unconscious and yet delicate indicators of the balance, or lack of it, in our greater environment. In my own personal dream lore, birds bring news ósometimes good news, and sometimes mourning.
This mixed status of birds as harbingers of both the uncanny and environmental disequilibrium finds menacing celebration in Daphne Du Maurier's disturbing classic The Birds first published in 1952. Alfred Hitchcock's film is better known than Du Maurier's tale --which underwent a major transformation, some might say deformation, in its adaptation to film. In Hitchcock's version, set in California, a sexy rich girl exposes a quiet sea town to danger when she pursues a local journalist, bringing him a gift of two lovebirds in a cage. Her arrival triggers the massing of birds in the area which then begin to attack and kill people in the community. Psychological friction lies at the root of this phenomenon. Interpreted in a Freudian key, the birds manifest the murderous emotions harbored by the mother towards her rival. The attack scenes, done partly with real birds (the actors smeared their hands with anchovy paste to attract the creatures) and partly with puppets, are still today extraordinary examples of cinematic illusion.
The original story, published in 1952 in Du Maurierís collection The Apple Tree is set in bleak, atmospheric, Cornwall. Nat, a farmhand and war veteran, begins to notice the bizarre behavior of birds in the fields and along the coast, which at first he seeks to explain by natural causes: changes in the weather brought by Arctic winds, hunger, disorientation. It soon becomes evident that the birds are working together consciously to destroy human communities --and Nat labors ceaselessly to protect his family, knowing that there is little hope to win out against such a monstrous force. Some critics link the story to fears of a Nazi invasion or of the Cold War, both of which are mentioned in the story. It has also been considered as the forerunner of today's popular genre of the environmental catastrophe tale.
Aside from Hitchcock's film, The Birds has also been adapted for drama and radio play. In audiobook version it is available exquisitely narrated by Edward E French the award-winning Hollywood special make-up artist who also works as an actor and professional narrator. Connoisseurs of gothic will find much to delight them in the readings available on his You Tube channel not only of The Birds, but many other classics by masters of gothic and horror, such as Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, and M.R. James.