Birds and Battlefields
March 12, 2013 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Mixing military history and natural history, I'm looking for information regarding bird behavior during wartime. An example: would one hear bird songs on the battlefield during pauses in fighting?

I'd be happy with any sort of sources: articles, books, anecdotes (handed down or personal stories), etc., especially because my research has turned up so little so far.

I'm not after "hard evidence" so much as a general sense of how birds and even other animals might keep themselves out of harm's way—if they did.
posted by josephtate to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've read some accounts of the Battle of Chancellorsville, during the American Civil War, that state that deer were running ahead of the Confederate soldiers when they attacked the Union forces.
posted by lharmon at 4:06 PM on March 12, 2013

A local lake once hosted a breeding ground for a specific migratory bird. But one morning during WWII, Canadian soldiers camped nearby decided to gather up these birds' eggs for their meal. They gathered so many eggs, and scared away so many birds, that to this day they haven't come back.
posted by Jehan at 4:22 PM on March 12, 2013

There's definitely a bird at the trenches at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front, so I had a poke around and found this:

Ye fearless birds that live and fly where men
Can venture not and live, that even build
Your nests where oft the searching shrapnel shrilled
And conflict rattled like a serpent, when
The hot guns thundered further, and from his den
The little machine-gun spat, and men fell piled
In long-swept lines, as when a scythe has thrilled,
And tall corn tumbled ne'er to rise again.

Ye slight ambassadors twixt foe and foe,
Small parleyers of peace where no peace is,
Sweet disregarders of man's miseries
And his most murderous methods, winging slow
About your perilous nests - we thank you, so
Unconscious of sweet domesticities.

I'd wager that if birds stay around for WWI trench warfare, then they probably wouldn't be too bothered by lots of other wars.
posted by pompomtom at 4:23 PM on March 12, 2013

Do carrier pigeons count? If so, check out the story of Cher Ami during WWI.
posted by beagle at 4:41 PM on March 12, 2013

The larks bravely singing still flew about the poppy fields in Flanders, in the classic poem "In Flanders Fields." Of course it isn't documentary evidence of birdsong during WW 1 but I imagine that such an incongruous sound as a lark sweetly singing above the moans of dying men would be a stark prompt for an instantly classic poem. As to whether larks are willing to simply wait out cannon fire for their chance to sing, I cannot say.
posted by salishsea at 6:29 PM on March 12, 2013

Old Abe, a female bald eagle, was the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin in the US Civil War.
posted by LonnieK at 6:53 PM on March 12, 2013

There are stories of birdsong entertaining the troops on the Somme.
posted by mattoxic at 9:27 PM on March 12, 2013

The setting is the thing.

After the artillery strike shredded the treeline the fast movers came in with napalm. We don't bother to hang around to see what happened.

next mission:

BDA means bomb damage assessment. We flew in behind the B52s. We couldn't see them of course, because they were at thirty thousand feet and we were skimming the treeline, but we could glimpse the jungle--two kilometers ahead--when it begin to ripple and blink, a blanket of hell a kilometer wide and about three kilometers long. Then the shock wave began to pound at our helicopter--drums, a bunch of lousy drummers, no rhythm. A few minutes later we scrambled off the chopper at the near edge of the impact zone. Craters, sometimes interlocking, thirty feet wide and maybe twenty feet deep, trees turned to splinters, but suprisingly little damage to those outside the impact cone of each bomb. The jungle is dense and resistant, but contrary to popular belief, you sort of have to be right under those damned things for it to mess you up. Anyhow, this is mostly for those poor bastards in the tunnels.

After an hour of walking through this landscape, the TL calls in a spot report. Nothing but monkeys in the trees, he says, holding their little monkey hands over their little monkey ears. Some evidence of a trenchline and a couple of bunkers in one section, no bodies that we could find. You don't really bother looking inside the craters too closely--evidence would be elsewhere.

We sat around for the next couple of hours, to see if anybody would come up, but when it got dark we pulled off and hid in the bush for the night. No birds sang, but the little brown leeches were still there. Next morning we got picked up at the far end of the impact area. Another walk in the park.
posted by mule98J at 11:00 AM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

LonnieK: Old Abe, a female bald eagle, was the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin in the US Civil War.
Not sure a captive raptor has anything to do with the topic at hand, though.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:20 PM on March 14, 2013

Not sure a captive raptor has anything to do with the topic at hand, though.

Not sure what 'captive' means -- for a raptor who flies thousands of miles across raging battlefields and returns repeatedly to his 'captors.'

Or have I been suckered? Please explain.
posted by LonnieK at 7:07 PM on March 14, 2013

"Captive", as in: a wild animal that is kept captive. You seem to have an image in mind that this bird traveled around like some sort of feathered hound dog; that simply isn't so.

Raptors are housed either in cages, or by tying them to perches - although cages are preferred, as it keeps them safer from other animals (since they typically perch high up in trees).

Such captive raptors are carefully weighed by falconers before release, to make sure they are at "hunting weight", which is to say they are ravenously hungry, and so are very likely to return if meat is offered. No matter how long a raptor is kept, if it is released full-bellied, there is literally no reason in the bird's brain to return to the glove, and the falconer may be out in the field for several hours (or days) waiting for the bird to become hungry again. If the bird at any time decides to fly, there's no reason for it to return - and no human can really keep up with it.

As my friends who are master falconers remind people at their demos, a raptor is never your friend; at best it views you as a convenient conduit of food, but it will tear your flesh with talons or beak if you ever forget that they are small-brained, well-armed, remorseless predators.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:02 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

A long overdue thanks to all who weighed in on the question. It was exactly the sort of help I needed to get started in the right direction.
posted by josephtate at 8:55 AM on April 2, 2013

Thx IAmBroom. Lonnie has learned something.
posted by LonnieK at 12:07 PM on April 2, 2013

« Older Thanks for all your hard work, please go away now.   |   How can a schlump like me learn PHP in the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.