Friday, 23 December 2016


What were the ultimate consequences of this terrible war for bird life? In this sixth extract from his book, Birds and The War, Hugh Gladstone makes his assesssment.

I AM not aware of any change of habit in birds actually due to the war unless indeed their supreme indifference to the noise of battle may be so described. 

Swallows are reported to have built freely in trees in France when all buildings had been levelled.

An eye-witness described a  poplar tree, which had escaped being cut down by the Germans in their retreat, in which there were at least half a dozen nests, the lowest being about 10ft  from the ground and others wherever the birds could get a lodgement.

The occurrence of such nests is not unknown though this is the first occasion, as far as I know, that trees have been freely (I can hardy say habitually) used by swallows for nidification. 

Magpies, in parts of Somme where most of the large trees had been felled, nested in quite small trees.

It is certainly remarkable that the vibration of gunfire in the vicinity of nests containing incubating eggs did not destroy them, nor even affect the embryos or the young when hatched.

I have already mentioned the case of a blackbird which reared its brood in a nest built in a hedge only 20 yards from two heavy guns. 

That any thing so sensitive as an embryonic chick should have been able to sustain with im-
punity the near discharge of a big gun is certainly unexpected, and Nature, in her far-seeing wisdom, can scarcely have foreseen the exigencies that would be required of her in this the most terrific war of all time.

The case of the blackcap whose nest had been blown sideways by shells and who laid three pure white eggs in a second nest within10ft of the old one is worthy of remark here, as it is conceivable that this abnormally colourless clutch was the result of the fright which the female had sustained.

It was noticed that swallows and martins on the Western Front habitually circled more closely than usual to human beings, doubtless attracted in search of the insects disturbed from the tangle of weeds , and this habit was also noticed in Palestine.

Eye-witnesses in France were impressed by the fact that all live creatures who had experienced the blast from a gun appeared to avoid passing in front of one. Birds proved no exception to this rule. 

The powers of mimicry of the starling found scope, writes an artillery officer on the Western Front, in the imitation of the three shrill blasts on a whistle used to denote theapproach of enemy aeroplanes. 

"It was great fun," he writes, ''to see everyone diving for cover, and I was nearly deceived myself one day.

A similar story is told of an owl in the vicinity of the London ''Outer Barrage" anti-aircraft gun-stations.

 ''The beastly bird learnt to imitate the alarm whistle to a nicety," said the gun commander.."On
several occasions, he turned me out in pyjamas and, when the crew had manned the gun, gave vent to a decided chuckle" 

The cocks and hens of a French farmyard are said to have learned  to make a noise exactly like that of a falling "dud" shell, and it would indeed prove a valuable addition to Darwin's instances of domestic instincts if this imitation could be shown to be transmitted as a fixed habit in the hen's progeny

It is conceivable that birds bred within the battle area and reared amongst all the turmoil of war may have acquired an innate indifference to terrific noises which they may impart to their progeny, successive generations of which might be expected, if wars continue, to become progressively more indifferent to their abnormal conditions. 

But this conception, which is without any substantiation by experience, has still to be proved. 
Gulls, rendered ravenous by hard weather, are alleged to have attacked fishermen off Deal while making a record haul of sprats in January 1917.

It was only with considerable difficulty that the fishermen were able to keep the gulls at bay with their oars. 

This temerity on the part of the gulls can perhaps hardly be attributable to the war, unless, indeed, they were infected with the war fever which pervaded the world.

In the autumn and winter of 1917-18, when energetic attempts were made to plough up more pasture land in this country, motor-ploughs were extensively employed for the purpose. 

One observer noticed that the gulls, normally the constant attendants of the horse-plough, did not follow the motor-ploughs, presumably on account of their noise and smell.

Another observer, however, reported having seen hundreds of gulls following motor-ploughs as unconcernedly as if they had been of the old-fashioned kind.

It is, perhaps, worthy of remark that under the new regime, when it has become possible to plough one day and sow the next, birds (such as gulls, rooks, and pheasants) have not the same opportunity of destroying wireworms and other noxious insects, of which, under the more protracted system of ploughing with horses, they so beneficially availed themselves.

It was not to be supposed that the unqualified success of the institution of ''summertime " would in any way affect Nature. 

Pet birds in houses and poultry in farmyards utterly ignored the '' willetted watch "but a peacock which had always been in the habit of going to its night rest at 8.40 pm is alleged to have re-
tired to bed at 8.40 p.m. (summer time) on the first day of the innovation and to have continued thereafter to do so!
Mr. William Beebe, in his recently published Monograph of the Pheasants, has pointed out that the far-flung influence of the war has granted a fresh lease of life to many species such as pheasants which had been jeopardised by the persecution conducted by plume-hunters and by the spread of mankind into their haunts. 

Nearer home, probably the greatest effect of the war is yet to be seen as regards birds. 

I am thinking of the destruction of forests and woods, sacrificed for national needs.

For a generation, at least, nothing but desolate areas will take the places of what were, in pre-war days, sanctuaries of wild life.

Already in 1917, an extension of the range of the great spotted woodpecker in the Tay area has been attributed to the cutting down of the larger and thicker woods for war purposes, the woodpeckers having been driven into the smaller woods which fill many of the more remote glens

Similar changes of habitat, if not of habit, may be expected, all of them due, more or less, to the exigencies of the war. 

There can be no doubt that the absence of gamekeepers from many estates has favoured an increase of ''vermin," both four-footed and winged. 

From many districts, it has already been reported that several species of predatory birds, which were, in pre-war days,  comparatively rare or but locally prescribed, have appeared in unusual

 Mr. W. Beach Thomas asks :"Is it an accident, or a result of the keeper's absence, that bitterns have bred on the East Coast during the period of the war? "

It is to be hoped that the powers conferred on county councils  by our Wild Birds Protection Acts will be utilised to continue any benefits which our rarer birds may have enjoyed owing to
the absence of their persecutors during the war. 

The effects of increased cultivation should, as regards this country, be beneficial not only to graminivorous but also to insectivorous birds, but there is no reason to suppose that any changes of this kind will immediately influence the habits of birds. 

In any case, it is imperative that the protection of birds, as at present enforced by our Game Laws and Wild Birds Protection Acts, should not be withdrawn, but rather increased,seeing that our best crop protectors are the insectivorous birds. 

Next: The ornithologists who died in battle.

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