Skip to content

Daphne du Maurier

The official Daphne du Maurier website, approved by her Estate

Please see disclaimer

The Birds in Fiction

The Birds - Frank Baker

The Birds, a novel by Frank Baker, this is the 1964 reprint

Please note, there are some spoilers in this review.

In 1936, writer Frank Baker published his second novel and called it The Birds.  It was published by Peter Davies Ltd, a London publishing house owned by Peter Davis, Daphne du Maurier's cousin, the son of her father's older sister Sylvia.  Peter's younger brother Nico also worked at the publishing house.  Sadly, the novel hardly made a dent in the world of fiction, and initially, it only sold about 350 copies.  Reviews of the book were mixed and, according to Paul Newman in his biography, The Man Who Unleashed the Birds: Frank Baker and his circle, could be best described as coolish and respectful.

Frank Baker was born in London in 1908.  From a young age, he developed an interest in church music, and he became a chorister at Winchester Cathedral.  As a young adult, Frank gained employment as a marine insurance clerk in the City of London, a job which he did not enjoy and which became the foundation for his novel, The Birds.  He left the insurance office when he was about 23 and began working as a secretary at an ecclesiastical music school.  At this time, he also worked as a church organist and had aspirations to develop a career in music.  However, he abandoned this ambition and moved to St Just in West Cornwall, taking on a job there as organist of the local church, but primarily beginning a career as a writer. 

Frank's first novel, The Twisted Tree, was published by Peter Davies Ltd. and had some success,  encouraging him to write more.  The Birds was the book which came next.  This was a dark tale set in London, and it was told by an elderly man to his daughter.  He reflects on the invasion of the birds in London decades before.  At first, the birds just gathered in large numbers and seemed to be watching and waiting.  Then, the terror begins with the birds making an attack on Trafalgar Square.  There are many attacks, and the birds get more and more frightening.  Sometimes, individual birds leave the flock and shadow one person everywhere they go.  There is a fear that the birds are killing people who simply get in the way, but also because of some fault that the birds perceive in individual people.  The novel is complex and terrifying, with the birds creating chaos in London and apparently in other towns and cities.  The last major scene of terror that the narrator describes to his daughter is an attack at St. Paul's Cathedral when the birds break the glass windows with their beaks and swarm into the nave.  They attack and destroy the Archbishop and then the choirmaster and terrorise the congregation in a blood bath of horror caused both by the attacking birds and the panicking people trampling over one another.
Miraculously, the narrator gets away from St Paul's, and he and his family escape the terrors of London by moving away to a quiet farm in Wales.  
The phrase in the book - Before the birds came – is incredibly powerful and provides a clear divide between when life was safe and when the actions of the birds changed everything.

Interestingly, part of Frank's inspiration for The Birds came on a wintery afternoon when he watched a gigantic flock of starlings blanket a Cornish field.

In 1952, Daphne du Maurier published The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Several Long Stories, which included a short story called The Birds.  This story takes place in an isolated corner of Cornwall, where there is a definite feeling of something different taking place when the wind changes direction overnight.  Again, the birds start to gather, sit, watch, and wait before they begin to attack.

The Birds - Daphne du Maurier

The Birds and Other Stories, originally called The Apple Tree, by Daphne du Maurier, this is the first edition Penguin published in 1963

Despite having an initial similarity with the birds gathering and then attacking, these two stories are, in fact, very different from each other.  Frank Baker knew nothing of Daphne du Maurier's short story, and Daphne knew nothing about Frank's novel.  Sceptics have said that it is unlikely that a book published by Daphne's cousins Peter and Nico Davies would not have caught Daphne's attention, and so she must have had Frank's novel in mind when she wrote her short story.  I refute that suggestion completely.  How could she possibly have known the details of all the books that her cousins were publishing?

The inspiration for Daphne's short story, The Birds, is well and clearly documented.  One day in October 1951, Daphne was out walking close to Menabilly with her friend Oriel Malet.  In a field on Menabilly Barton farm, they saw the farmer in his tractor ploughing and seagulls wheeling around him as if they were going to attack.  Daphne turned to Oriel and said that she had often thought how nanny* it would be if all the birds in the world ganged together to attack us. 

'They could you know', she said.

In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock made his movie The Birds, based on Daphne du Maurier's short story.  It is a great film and has stood the test of time, remaining just as popular today as it was in the 1960s.  However, we are all aware that the story of the film bears very little similarity to Daphne's short story.

It was in 1962, during the making of The Birds, that word reached Frank Baker from a number of friends that Hitchcock was making a film which must surely be based on his novel.  It was at this point that Frank discovered there was a short story of the same name that Daphne du Maurier had written, and apparently Hitchcock was basing his film on that short story.  Frank contacted his publisher, Nico Davies.  Nico, uncomfortable about the fact that Daphne was his cousin, made various suggestions for possible actions that Frank could take.

It was decided to bring out a paperback edition of Frank's novel, and so in February 1964, Panther produced a new edition of The Birds by Frank Baker.

Here are the words that were printed on the first page of the novel:

Written long before Daphne du Maurier's short story, this novel deals with a similar idea: A time in the future when the birds wreak their vengeance on men, women and even children.  It is something of a find, an original, exciting and stylish horror book which has been too long forgotten. 

Despite appearing to be directed as a criticism of Daphne du Maurier, Frank Baker's actual irritation was with Alfred Hitchcock, as he felt the film was really based more on his novel than Daphne's short story.  I need to say that we have no idea if Hitchcock knew about Frank's novel, but even if he did, he would always take an idea and then change it to the point where the author could barely recognise their own work!

Daphne and Frank seem to have dealt very amicably with the situation.  Frank wrote to Daphne and sent her a paperback copy of his book.  On the title page of the book, he wrote:

To Daphne du Maurier
(fellow debtor to Aristophanes**)
From Frank Baker
February 1964.

Inscription in The Birds by Frank Baker to DduM

An image of the title page of the copy of The Birds by Frank Baker that he inscribed, signed, and sent to Daphne in 1964

Daphne replied to Frank, saying that she had sat up late the previous night and stayed in bed that morning in order to finish his novel, The Birds.  She said she had been absolutely fascinated by it and described it as a really superb psychological, one might say metaphysical drama, adding that it was far deeper stuff than her short story.  She sympathised with Frank, understanding how bitter he must have felt when there was so much the newspapers about Hitchcock's film, saying how the idea had come from Daphne's story.  I find it endearing that the two authors were able to rise above animosity and understand each other's point of view in this potentially awkward and inflammatory situation.  If anything, I feel any antagonism they felt was towards Hitchcock for making his own version of The Birds while paying lip service to Daphne's short story.

So, now we come to 2024 and a brand new book about birds attacking, called The Parliament by Aimee Pokwatka, published in the US by Tor Publishing Group, New York.

The Parliament by Amiee Pokwatka

The Parliament by Amiee Pokwatka, published this year (2024)

I think it is unlikely that the author of The Parliament even knows about Frank Baker's novel, The Birds.  If she knows about Daphne du Maurier's short story, she certainly doesn't mention it in the blurb in her book or on the dustwrapper.  Yet, the opening lines, which in both cases are powerful scene-setters and great beginnings to their stories, do feel very similar to one another. 

The Birds by Daphne du Maurier opens with the words:

On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter.  Until then, autumn had been mellow and soft.  The leaves had lingered on the trees golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. 

The Parliament by Amiee Pokwatka begins:

On the eve of Mad Purdy's first class at the Elmwood Public Library, all the leaves on the trees turned red overnight.  Mad was a chemist, not a botanist, but she knew the true colour of leaves, in the absence of chlorophyll, was yellow.  Leaves only turned red on purpose…

You will realise that a group of owls are called a parliament, and Amiee Pokwatka's novel is indeed about a vast number of owls who surround the local town library.  

On the afternoon that the story begins, there is quite a variety of people in the library as the owls start to gather and watch and wait.  The main character is Mad (oddly, another connection to du Maurier, as the main character in her final novel,  Rule Britannia, is also called Mad).  This Mad is a young scientist who has agreed to run a fun science class for a group of youngsters at the library.  She is doing this as a favour to her friend, who works at the library.

These particular owls are small, and at first, although the birds are gathering in huge numbers and looking quite sinister, there is no real concern about any potential danger.  However, one woman leaves the library, and within minutes, the owls have swooped on her, tearing lumps of flesh from her body with their sharp little beaks, and within a short time, there is nothing left of her but cleanly picked bones.  The fear ramps up immediately, and yet shortly afterwards, one of the young men in the library also leaves, believing that he is fit and strong and the owls will be no problem to him.  Of course, precisely the same thing happens.

The library staff and all the adults in the library set about securing the doors and windows so that the owls won't be able to break in.  It quickly becomes evident that help will not come from outside, so food, water and medicines are pooled to try to eke out supplies. 

To help keep the children settled, Mad begins to read them a story, one which had been a childhood favourite of hers.  Slightly oddly, this story becomes part of the book, so the reader is involved in the drama of what might happen next with the owls, and then there are chapters of the children's story in between the main chapters.  It does have relevance to the overall story, but I found it a bit of a distraction from the main storyline.

Like Frank Baker's and Daphne du Maurier's The Birds, The Parliament has an inevitable similarity in that the birds suddenly start to act out of character and turn against the humans, tearing into them with their claws and sharp beaks.  However, each story has a totally different plot and ending, making each one very individual.  I would say that if anything inspired Amiee Pokwatka to write her book, it is more likely to be Hitchcock's film than either of the other stories.

Each of these stories is well written, and each one is written has a very different style.  They are significantly different from one another, and we would recommend you read them all.

*nanny is part of the du Maurier's language and means anything frightening or threatening.
** Aristophanes was an Athenian playwright.  His play The Birds was a massive success in 414 BC.

The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Several Long Stories by Daphne du Maurier, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1952.
The Birds by Frank Baker, Panther, 1964.
The Birds by Frank Baker, Valancourt Books, 2013.  A revised edition with revisions based on Frank Baker's own notes.
The Man Who Unleashed The Birds: Frank Baker & His Circe by Paul Newman, Abraxas Editions & DGR Books, 2010.
The Parliament by Amiee Pokwatka, Tor Publishing Group, 2024.

© Ann Willmore April 2024.

‹‹ Back