Your birding questions answered
During the recent fireworks I was concerned how the birds cope, and that got me thinking about how on earth they coped during World War II. Their habitats must have been devastated and how did they get through each night of bombing? Also, how did their numbers suffer during the war? James Couling, Portsmouth
QThis is a very interesting question, especially when you consider that the modern RSPB arguably had its origins in prisoner of war camps during the Second World War. Birds are indeed affected by wars, but the noise seems to be less of a problem than other factors. Early on in the war, there were reports of birds scattering and hiding at the approach of aeroplanes, and caged birds, such as the parrots in London Zoo, screamed incessantly during air raids. After a while, however, the birds seemed to get used to the noise and disturbance, and in some cases birds, such as Jackdaws actually began mobbing low-flying aircraft! Habitat loss and food shortages did have a negative effect on bird numbers across Europe, though. The interruption in deep-sea fishing led to a decrease in the number of gulls, although they learned to head towards naval gunfire in order to take advantage of ‘concussed’ fish coming to the surface! More ships being sunk, however, resulted in more oil damage to seabirds and shorebirds. The ploughing of farmland margins in the UK to grow more food also led to the loss of birds such as the Stonechat (above). Bombing of cities was a double-edged sword for some urban species; some suffered from loss of nesting sites, but conversely, bombed areas provided an opportunity for plants to grow in the rubble, with a knock-on effect on insect life. Military camps were often built on breeding grounds, leading to problems for several migratory species, and due to rationing and some countries’ prohibitions on feeding human food to animals, feeding wild birds was effectively outlawed. Coupled with some bad winters, especially that of 1940, this led to many birds starving to death. In some areas, notably Russia and Germany, wild birds became a sought-after food source, further contributing to their decline. Some bird species even became casualties of military action, with the British Air Ministry, for example, shooting more than 600 Peregrines in order to protect carrier pigeons. Some species did recover post-war, but many never did.