Feathered friends a comfort at war time
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War. Laura Brown, an auxiliary veterinary nurse from Barnfield House Vetrinary Centre, continues her series about animals in the war – this week, Birdwatching in the Trenches
Offensive. His poem, published after his death, showed the comfort that wild birds could give to men at war.
Birds did not just inspire poetry. The armed forces contained both amateur bird enthusiasts and professional ornithologists (at least 20 zoologists and botanists were called up from the staff of the British Museum alone).
The enforced travel of military service gave these people the chance to observe new species and habitats, and some of them used the opportunity to contribute to scientific knowledge.
James Maurice Harrison, a surgeon with the Royal Navy, was a keen amateur ornithologist.
His ship, HMS Monitor 28, was The skylark, the subject of a poem by John William Streets (pictured below); (below left) the bee-eater, one of the birds of great interest to James Maurice Harrison sunk in the Aegean Sea during the Battle of Imbros in 1918 and he was the only officer to survive.
He lost his bird journal in the sinking, but was able to reconstruct it from memory and used it to publish a number of papers about the birds of the Aegean region.
In one of them, he expressed hope that his accounts would ‘give some idea of the attractions offered to the field naturalist in Macedonia, and may be of interest to others about to embark O.H.M.S. [On His Majesty’s Service] for that quarter, and help to send them on their way one degree cheerier, and hold out some consolation for Foreign Service in war-time.’
The efforts of Harrison and other amateur observers in the military helped to sustain the field of ornithology during a time when many scientific projects and publications were suspended.
Harrison went on to found an ornithological museum in Sevenoaks. Now known as the Harrison Institute, the museum supports conservation projects around the world. He and his son also founded a nature reserve just outside the town.
Soldiers sometimes relied on wild birds to provide clues about the enemy’s actions. Birds would fly away when they smelled poison gas. Pheasants and gulls seemed to sense the vibrations of guns from a long way off and became noticeably agitated.
Wild birds were also among the victims of war, and not just because hungry soldiers sometimes shot them for food. When mines went off at sea, they sent an oily discharge to the surface, which coated the feathers of seabirds and killed them in large numbers. Birds may have represented life and freedom to those entrapped by the war, but they were not always able to rise above man’s ‘sanguine strife’.
Next month: The shipwrecked pig and other mascots.