Friday, 23 December 2016


Aircraft such as this Handley Page bomber were still a novelty to all - including birds - at the time of the 1914-18 war
In this third extract from Birds and The War, author Hugh Gladstone explores the effect of aircraft, still a new phenomenon, and aerial impact on avian life

I now propose to record how aircraft, gunfire, air raids and the like affected birds.

That birds should regard an aeroplane, especially one of the monoplane type, as a huge falcon or other raptor might be considered as not only probable but natural, and there are numerous records of birds being obviously terrified by them.

Gulls, in the early days of the war, were sadly put about and scared by aeroplanes that hovered over the Breydon flats, but they soon began to pay no heed to them.

On some occasions, the birds' curiosity seems to have been aroused rather than their fear, and a flock of black-headed gulls in Perthshire were seen to pursue three hydroplanes.

On the approach of an aeroplane, after dark, to a fir wood, it was noticed that the woodpigeons, which had come in to roost, rose in a mass and fluttered noisily round and round. 

 Pheasants crowed and flew to and fro, and all the small birds twittered and called.

A whitethroat and a willow warbler began snatches of song , then broke off abruptly. 
Only a long-eared owl sat tight and showed no fear. 

A birdlover who lives in Kensington Palace Green, London, tells me that the birds were very much alarmed by air raids. Sparrows and owls became restless about an hour or 30 minutes beforehand. 

A green parrot shrieked repeatedly. On one occasion, a sparrow fainted, but, after having been kept in the house all night, flew away next morning. 

A tame pigeon, which was always very nervous, sat in its owner's hand in a state of tension with legs and wings stiff. 

As the raids became more frequent, however, the birds seemed to become more accustomed to them, and their behaviour could no longer be depended on as a warning of approaching aircraft. 

Jackdaws were observed, in a French town, to leave their homes in the steeples and throw themselves upon aeroplanes, clinging to them and attacking them with their beaks as if to drive away these gigantic and unknown birds of prey.

A friendly rivalry in supplying aeroplanes was encouraged in our colonies. The planters of Ceylon conceived the idea of naming them after birds, thus their first three contributions were christened “Paddybird'' ,” Devilbird" and  “Nightjar".

Some time later, the Parliamentary Air Committee suggested that army aeroplanes should be designated as " land birds” and seaplanes as “sea birds” .

Among the many ornithological terms subsequently adopted by our naval, military, and air forces may be mentioned the WRENS to denote the Women's Royal Naval Service and the Penguins as a distinctive name for the women attached to the Royal Air Force, which force was known as Roosters (men who could fly) and Fledglings (men who were learning). 

No term was, however, more apt than that of Kiwi to denote the Royal Air Force staff officer whose terrestrial duties rendered him incapable of flight. 

These are but examples of avian nomenclature as applied to our Forces, and will suffice as typical of their ingenious adoption. 

The formation of aerodromes in various parts of the country had but little effect on the bird population in their vicinity. 

Patridges haunted the precincts of more than one of our largest airship sheds, and, in spite  of the almost incessant noise associated with these establishments, the birds in general did not seem to avoid them. 

It was, however, recorded that two large ancient rookeries, one about a quarter and the other half a mile away, were deserted in 1915 on account of a field being used habitually for the descent of Sleropldines .

Sound waves of great explosions have been found to travel long distances from the centre of the disturbance. 

When the Silvertown munitions factory exploded in East London  on January 19, 1917, it was heard 128 miles away, and other great explosions have been distinguished at distances varying from 90 to 186 miles.

 A limited number of observations tend to show that throughout a large part of the area over which the sound-waves are audible, birds are  affected by the disturbance.

 The immediate cause of their disquiet is unknown, but it is supposed to be due either to actual perception of the sound of explosions or to shock caused by air wave concussion.

The Zeppelin raids, a feature of the war early in 1915, were nearly always heralded in this country by the crowing of pheasants, and the sensitivity of this species to distant sounds was frequently a subject of comment. 

There seems no reason to suppose that pheasants have keener powers of hearing than men. It appears more probable that these birds are alarmed by the sudden quivering of the trees on which they happen to be perched at the time of an explosion.

 It was said that, when pheasants began to talk, the airman got ready to fly and the anti-aircraft gunner turned out. 

The crowing of pheasants often preceded by 15 minutes to half an hour the approach of hostile aircraft.

During the first Zeppelin raid in January, 1915, pheasants at Thetford and Bury St. Edmunds, 35 to 40 miles from the area over which the Zeppelins flew, shrieked themselves hoarse.

In one of the early battles in the North Sea, birds in places as far west as Cumberland were recorded as having manifested an uncanny knowledge of some unusual atmospheric disturbance.

Gamekeepers on the East Coast used to say that they always knew when enemy raids had commenced “for the pheasants call us day and night”.

A pair of tawny owls, in the outskirts of London, were credited with being able to detect the presence of Zeppelins when many miles away. On their approach, they appeared to be very angry and nervous, flying from bough to bough.

Peacocks are said to have been the first birds to have detected the air raid of May 19, 1918.

An observer of an air raid on the South-east coast on May 20, 1916, was awakened just before 2am by the distant approach of seaplanes. 

Nightingales were singing lustily, and it was not until the aircraft were right overhead that they ceased, not to commence their song again till about 2.30 am when the whirring of the seaplanes had faded into a distant hum. 

The nightingales' reiterated song seemed like a choral defiance to the Huns and was swelled by countless other little British songsters, together with a cuckoo who added a jeering call to the re treating enemy alien who so closely resembled that parasitic avian intruder into homes not his own.

Aircraft, however, do not seem, on the whole, to have had much effect on birds, and skylarks have often been seen singing unconcernedly around aeroplanes and airships in the sky.

 Mr. Charles Dixon, writing of the daylight raid on London on July 7, 1917, when a fleet of 20  ''Taubes" appeared like magic in a sun-bathed sky, states that the effect on bird life was practically nil. 

Although many German machines passed over him and gun fire was incessant for nearly two hours, he noticed that thrushes were singing on and off throughout the day.

Sparrows were quite unconcernedly hopping about the roads not 100 yards from where shrapnel was bursting, and pigeons and starlings were equally undisturbed. 

As regards raids by night, the same competent observer gave his opinion that they caused no disturbance whatsoever among roosting birds.

During the air raid of May 19,1918, a nightingale was heard, in a London suburb, singing at the top of his voice when the guns were loudest and above the crash of a bomb.

Other writers consider that birds were much upset by night raids, and it is recorded  that the ducks on the lakes in the London parks rose and flew in despair, and that, for  hours afterwards a lighted window attracted them, with dolorous cries, from their weary flight in quest of the waters from which they had blundered.

The only birds which I saw personally during the daylight raid of July 7, 1917, were London pigeons which evinced the greatest excitement at the general noise, whirling about in flocks in a thoroughly scared manner. 

Charles Waterton was of the opinion that all birds would get used to every sound except that of the gun.

This opinion has certainly been upset by the observations of bird watchers on the battle fronts.

In this country, there has not been sufficient continuous gunfire in any one place for the local birds to become accustomed to it, and in this connection it is interesting to note that when, in November,1917, the bells of St. Paul's rang out a merry peal for the '' Victory of the Tanks", the pigeons in a startled flock rose fluttering in the air whereas, in happier days, when the ringing of the cathedral bells was a daily occurrence, they used to regard it with indifference.

Similarly, when the Armistice with Germany was announced at II am French time on November 11, 1918, maroons were discharged, cannons fired,and church bells rung in London, much to the perturbation of the pigeons which were unaccustomed to any noise of gunfire in their immediate proximity.

During the bombardment of Yarmouth and Lowestoft in 1915, the birds were driven away in a panic. 

Anti-aircraft guns terrified blackbirds which were much disturbed at each detonation and flitted from tree to tree uttering agitated cries.

Even swallows, in their aerial chase, seemed to dart hither and thither more spasmodically than usual.

It seems probable that birds, being naturally sensitive to aerial movements, are disturbed more by the concussion of the air than by the actual sound of the explosions.

At the Zoological Gardens in Regent's  Park, only a few birds raised protesting voices during the raids, and still fewer showed any sign of nervousness next morning.

During the daylight raids, many of the birds sat with their eyes fixed on the sky, and the cranes were at all times excited by the aircraft, “making a rare clatter" as their keeper said, ''but that signified nothing, for they shout their heads off every time a barge passes on the canal".

Casualties among birds were of rare occurrence.

In the summer of 1916, it was stated  that numbers of linnets had been found dead near Louth, Lincolnshire, with the drums of their  ears split, and a complete absence of this species was reported from Suffolk and Hertfordshire.

In view of the fact that birds did not suffer from the reverberation of the guns on the battlefront, the above statement becomes the more remarkable.

As the actual result of air raids, an unlucky bird was more than once reported as the only victim, and a canary in its cage was the single casualty of an air raid on King's Lynn.

During the Zeppelin raid on the night of September 22-23, 191 6, a bomb, dropped within 20 yards of a fowl run, blew all the feathers except one from a  cock's tail. Next day the bird, with truly Gallic sangfroid, strutting about with the one feather sticking out, none the worse for its adventure  and possibly feeling extra “cock-a-hoop” in the knowledge that two of the Zeppelins had been brought down. 

Our intrepid airmen at times were tempted to vie with birds in their own element. In the very early days of aviation naval aviators are credited with having shot ducks over the marshes, and 

I know of one case where an airman, out on a trial trip one day from Ramsgate, came across some mallard. He gave chase, opened fire at them with his machine-gunand killed three, which were picked up by a fisherman and brought to the RNA mess, where they formed a welcome addition to Government rations.

There is a story, so far back as 1911, of the French aviator Garros having shot with his revolver at an eagle which attacked him while flying over the mountains in Spain, when on his way from Paris to Madrid.

Louis Noel, of the French Air Service, shot two eagles in the air, from his machine, with a shotgun on the Salonika front.

On the Balkan front, in 1916, a French pilot is said to have shot three eagles with his machine gun, in the course of an hour or so. 

He regarded the eagle as not a very fast flyer but a clever aviator, so that he had to  "nose-dive," ''side-slip," and ''do vertical banks" in order to keep in sight of his quarry.

On one occasion, a British officer, while testing a new machine behind the French lines, was suddenly passed by a flock of wild geese.

He promptly started in pursuit and, oblivious of the direction in which they were heading, flew right across the enemy lines at an altitude at which he offered an easy target even to rifle fire.

The Germans, however, were apparently so engrossed in watching the performance that they neglected to fire at him!

At last the birds, as he got near them, turned and headed back across the lines again, with the result that he returned to his own territory without a shot having been fired at him.

An airman has told me that birds were not infrequently killed by  aeroplanes.

Airmen tried to give as wide a berth as possible to any flocks of birds they happened to overtake or meet.

An eagle is reported to have been overtaken and entrapped in the wires of a French aeroplane nearly 5,000ft  above the earth in Macedonia, but the propeller of an aeroplane is well known to be extremely fragile.

I have been assured that, on one occasion, an airman narrowly escaped with his life, the propeller of his machine having been broken by coming into contact with a soaring lark.

The effect of searchlights on gulls has been described as soporific or hypnotic.
In this case. it would seem that they rest in the steady beam much as migrating birds rest in the light of the lantern on lighthouse bird-moving searchlights in the Firth of Forth and in Weymouth Bay.

Next: The impact on birds of the conflict in Italy and on the Eastern Front.

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