Q&A

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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