Friday, 23 December 2016


In this fourth extract from Birds and The War, author Hugh Gladstone provides battlefield insights from Gallipoli, Italy, Mesopotamia, Macedonia and Palestine.

THE records which I have from battlefronts other than that in France and Flanders are comparatively meagre.

The majority of observations take the form of lists of birds common to the locality though rare in Great Britain, and, though of ornithological interest, fail to come under my present purview. 

The same indifference on the part of birds to the noise of war - as on the Western Front - is always noticed. 

An officer of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force writes: ''The astounding thing is how little the birds are put out by the crash of shells, columns of dust, clouds of smoke and by the movement of large bodies of troops over the hitherto undisturbed and peaceful domain."

They appear to have be far more disturbed by the movements of  troops everywhere than by the shells.

Kestrels were seen hovering, taking not the least notice of the bursting Turkish shrapnel or the detonation of the heavy naval guns and field artillery covering the advance and filling the firmament with continuous roar.

Grey Shrikes, warblers and larks sat perched on the top of bushes, not having been so much upset by the commotion as to quit the place.

Crested larks were very common and tame. If a shell burst in the grass or heather where they were, it merely caused them to fly up and utter their call note, and they soon dropped down again.

In May, 1915, a wheatear's nest was found in a cleft on the side of a Turkish trench.

The Turks had only just evacuated the position so that the birds had not been frightened away by the bombardment nor by the subsequent landing. The female proved to be quite fearless of man. 

Two pairs of wheatears nested and reared their broods, not far from Krithia in a bank which was constantly being plastered with bullets and bursting shells.

More than once, a shrapnel shell appeared to burst among a flock of birds, but the actual damage done could never be ascertained. 

On one occasion, a sergeant in the RAMC. found a lark incapacitated from flying by a slight wound in the wing. 

It was easily caught and kept in an old biscuit tin where it was fed on crumbs of army biscuit moistened with water. In a few days, the wing was healed and the bird released.

The behaviour of the birds on the Italian Front has not, as far as I know, provoked any comment.

A pigeon, which as a chick had been blown out of its nest and had fallen at the feet of a British gunner, was hand-reared and fed by him until it became so attached to his battery that it would not leave. 

It accompanied the guns through several fights, notably Asiago, the Austrian offensive of June 15,1918, where it endured gas, and Montello.

In Macedonia, storks were numerous near Salonika, and one of these birds acquired the habit of meeting our aeroplanes wherever they landed and soon came to be regarded by the pilots
as their mascot.

After a terrific tearing and roaring noise of artillery and shot in ''the dead of night'', there would be a temporary cessation of the duel, when out would come the nightingales, right above the guns, perched some times only a few yards from them in some bushes, in a ravine where our guns were hidden.

An eagle, well looked after and carefully handled, became the pet of a subaltern in the Balkans.

In Palestine, it was remarked that  the birds took little notice of aeroplanes. As an observer put it: "They created no more alarm than a steam engine in the next parish. "

Starlings put in an appearance on the first day of the bombardment of Gaza, at the end of October, 1917. 

Their numbers increased as the year went on, and, by December, there was a flock estimated at half a million, which fed, being often accompanied by flocks of thousands of rock doves, on
the old British camping-ground.

Swallows, both European and Egyptian, were common throughout the autumn, and invariably accompanied mounted troops to catch the insects disturbed by their horses' feet.

Not far from the Wadi Guzzee, a pair of wheatears took up residence in May,1917,within two yards of a bivouac occupied by a detachment of RAMC. 

The hen bird was quite fearless and would enter her nest whilst men were washing in a basin less than two yards off without the least sign of alarm

On the Mesopotamian Front, none of the notes at my disposal on the birds seen  describe any influence or effects of the war on birds, but, since many observers remark on the abundance of bird life, it may be assumed that birds on this front were no less indifferent to the noise of battle than elsewhere.

I have no information regarding the behaviour of birds on the African battlefields. 

Next: The impact of the war on bird migration.

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