Avian Flu

I remember staring out of my window on a Sunday afternoon, watching a seagull endlessly circling the cloudless sky above my neighborhood.  I had a cold I couldn’t shake, so I was cloistered indoors with the windows shut while pairs of common swifts, lone city-fat wood pigeons, and clusters of cheeping alpine accentors careened freely in the frigid air, and I thought, “What if they were all drones, spying on us for a foreign power?”

The truth, of course, was far more sinister.

Look at any city in the old world through the double-pane visor of your environmental suit, and you will see mankind’s buildings were nothing more than expensive roosts for the myriad. Short, flat ledges and expansive roofs, fountains to clean and cool them, chimneys to keep them warm and incubate their eggs. Few attics were secure—a little chicken wire easily bent back by wicked beaks—and it was common to climb into one’s loft and find keepsakes littered with feathers.

It makes you think, “How far back did this go?” Who was the first of the infected to rave to an unwitting audience that domes, considered perfect in the ancient world and in the new for their lack of perch or purchase, were unfashionable?

I think it’s funny how people can look back at something and ascribe to it a different meaning or purpose just because it happened in the past, but it’s also useful.

For example, I believe my wife was one of the first victims of what we now call The Malignancy. We were living in California in the early 2000s—it was spring at the time—when a pair of house finches made their home in a corner of our balcony roof. Molly, a gentle soul and avid photographer, was at first overjoyed to witness the miracle of life so close and accessible, and we were childless. We stopped using the balcony for fear of disturbing them.

But they felt no such compunction. It was the mites, you see. They crawled down the wall, through the screens, under the sliding doors, and infested the carpet. They climbed onto Molly while she took her pictures and bit her, raising weeping welts, but the worst part was that their microscopic molted skins got into her lungs. She died, twenty-two years later, and spent her life suffering from a slowly worsening respiratory condition, and the doctors—many of them, over the years—told us it was genetic. But she was fine, before the nest.

And no, I don’t think I’m being paranoid. Paranoia is one of the first signs of infection and, as you can imagine, I’ve been careful. But what if the constant grooming, preening, and birdbaths were instead deliberate selection? What if it was a mite breeding program, orchestrated by birds? We thought cases of influenza, tuberculosis, elderly pneumonia, and childhood asthma were rising with urban pollution levels, but what if that wasn’t it at all? It was too big to be human. By 2010, I’d gotten past my fear of foreign flyers and decided they were aliens instead.

The twenty-teens—let’s say 2016 to 2019, to narrow it down—were good years for me. I’d found a job and moved back to Europe where my wife could get proper care. It was spring again. We were nearing a decade into her illness, and she could still walk two blocks to the pharmacy and only end up slightly winded. I was sitting at a table on a café terrace, on a pedestrian-only street, coming to grips with the idea that she might never get better.

I remember the coffee was terrible, and forgive me if I digress, but do you realize that most of the coffee in the world was sun-dried? In the open air! If Starbucks hadn’t near-incinerated their beans, we would all be dead, and I think it’s important to be grateful for that.

And it’s misleading to say I was coming to grips with her eventual death then and there, because it’s a process, isn’t it, the long-term illness of a loved one? It’s a slow erosion of hope and a choice every day to stick it out, but the girls sure did look pretty in their summer dresses and it didn’t hurt to look. I remember that day, because a white-winged snowfinch—Hahah! Finches again! Though a snowfinch is more of a sparrow—but yes, a white-winged snowfinch landed on my table and I fed it a bit of my croissant. It was half the size of my hand and completely unafraid, and I’m reminded that in those days we joked that birds were tiny dinosaurs. I’m laughing as I write this, because I remember chasing pigeons as a child, on the promenade in Nice, and they didn’t chase me back. Birds aren’t dinosaurs any more than people are monkeys. We’re the smarter, more violent and predatory animals who flourished where the missing link died out.

And then there’s poop. Our genetic ancestors, if you believe in that sort of thing, had one up on the dinosaurs because they weaponized their feces. We threw handfuls of the stuff at predators from trees and they fled from embarrassment. But we stopped there, washed our hands of it, flushed it and processed it away. Did you know that guano—that’s a fancy name for birdshit—is the perfect growth medium for plants? Birds ate seeds and planted their new habitats while we cut them down and paved them. No wonder they hated us.

In 2024, there was an increased incidence of human-animal interactions. That’s what scientists and foresters called them. It doesn’t do justice to finding a bear digging through your garbage can. I didn’t have a garbage can, mind, because I lived in the city, I left my garbage on the curb wrapped in non-compostable plastic. But a friend of a coworker’s neighbor was mauled in his suburban kitchen, and a mountain lion killed a reporter and his son while they were hiking. They called it habitat encroachment. Those made the news.

No one noticed when a murmuration of starlings knocked a jet liner out of the sky and it crashed into an oil, gas, and coal industry conference, because it was just one of those things. Birds had been causing plane crashes for years. An airspeed sensor blocked by a crow, a pelican through a cockpit… No one questioned that air travel was getting riskier in spite of technological advances. I took the train more often and read books by abductees. I posted on message boards—I tried to warn people! My friends called less often, and colleagues never had time for a drink.

In 2025, a man in Belgrade got crapped on by a passing bird and had a psychotic break. His friends said it was sudden and unexpected. It was neither, for me. A month after “the incident,” he stalked the halls of the National Assembly—Serbia’s highest legislative body—and selectively murdered several deputies just days before a vote on whether to subsidize the nation’s coal plants. Survivors said he ignored them completely. No one else made the guano connection. I stumbled across it because I’d set alerts on several news sites and search engines. I quietly broke our lease and moved into an older building, one with a bomb shelter left over from World War II.

The avian flu swept the world clean.

We had the domes, for a while, and the birds had our cities. The last years of Molly’s life have been her best; when H4T3 hit, decimating the world’s population, pneumologists were given unlimited funding, and curing her was an afterthought. It’s been wonderful; we’ve had two years to fall in love all over again. As for me, I spoke to the scientists and came to realize we’d done this to ourselves. We’d bred a species that could survive the real threat to the planet, us. But they were still just birds. Our greatest minds bent to the task and we vowed as survivors united to close the evolutionary gap.

Imagine my surprise when the aliens came. For days, the bird-machines streamed into their great harvest ships, clearing the skies. Then their masters came for us. We’ve lost contact with the other shelters. I hear them breaching the vault door, my wife and I are counting down the last seconds to the rhythm of their awful knocks. Tap, tap, tap.

I have a gun. I won’t let them take her. The great devourer’s beak descends upon us all.

Subscribe in a reader