Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, two disgruntled citizens, want to escape from the pettiness of life in Athens. They buy a jay and a crow, which Philocrates, the bird seller, tells them can guide them to Epops, a bird not born of birds; from Epops they hope to learn of a land where they can live a peaceful life.
The jay and the crow guide the pair into the mountains and lead them to a shelter hidden among the rocks. They knock and shout for admittance. When Trochilus, Epops’s servant, comes to the door, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus are prostrate with fear; they insist that they are birds, not men, a species the birds intensely dislike. Epops, a hoopoe with a triple crest, emerges from the shelter; he does not present a very colorful aspect, since he is molting. Epops informs the Athenians that he was once a man named Tereus, whom the gods transformed into a hoopoe.
When the Athenians reveal the purpose of their visit, Epops suggests that they move on to the Red Sea, but they say they are not interested in living in a seaport. Epops suggests several other places, but on one ground or another the pair rejects them all. The truth is that they want to stay among the birds and establish a city. Interested in this novel idea, Epops summons the birds, that they, too, might hear of the plan.
The birds swarm to the shelter from all directions until every species of Old World bird is represented at the gathering. The leader of the birds, fearful of all men, is dismayed when he learns that Epops talked with Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, and he incites all the birds to attack, threatening to tear the Athenians to pieces. To defend themselves, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus take up stewpots and other kitchen utensils. Epops rebukes the birds for their precipitous behavior. Finally, heeding his suggestion that perhaps they can profit from the plan of the two men, they settle down to listen. Epops assures the birds that Euelpides and Pisthetaerus have only the most honorable of intentions.
Pisthetaerus tells the birds that they are older than human beings. In fact, the feathered tribes were once sovereign over all creation, and even within the memory of people birds were known to have been supreme over the human race. For that reason, Pisthetaerus declares, birds are used as symbols of power and authority. The eagle, for example, is Zeus’s symbol, the owl is Athena’s symbol, and the hawk is Apollo’s.
Seeing that the birds are interested in his words, Pisthetaerus propounds his plan: The birds are to build a wall around their realm, the air, so that communication between the gods and human beings will be cut off. Both gods and people will then have to recognize the supremacy of the birds. If human beings prove recalcitrant, the sparrows will devour their grain and crows will peck out the eyes of their livestock. If they accede, the birds will control insect plagues and help them store up earthly treasures.
The birds are delighted with his plan. Epops ushers the Athenians into his shelter, where the pair momentarily forget their project when they see Epops’s wife, Procne, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a desirable young maiden. Meanwhile the leader of the birds speaks of humankind’s great debt to the birds. Urging human beings to look upon the birds as the true gods, he invites them to join the birds...
(The entire section is 1371 words.)