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Birds and a Wilderness
OBSERVATIONS OF THE EFFECT OF FOUR YEARS OF WAR ON A FERTILE COUNTRY, WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO THE BIRD POPULATION
By MAJOR ALLAN BROOKS, D.S.O.
ANY observers have had the opportunity to note the effect on wild life of the reclamation of a wilderness, as in the clearing and cultivation of a forested country; but it is seldom one has the chance to see the change effected by the reverse condition-the turning of a fertile country into a literally howling wilderness.
Eastward from Arras stretches the once fertile plain of Artois, quite unlike the much enclosed plain of Flanders― climate, soil, and methods of agriculture are all different. The soil, also unlike the clay of Flanders, is light, and underlaid in most places with chalk. Fences and hedges there are none, trees scarce and, except for a few large parks, usually confined to the borders of the main roads (I am speaking now of conditions before the war), and the houses of the farmers, instead of being scattered over the countryside, are congested into small villages, usually in a hollow, somewhat after the old Danish style one sees in the south of England.
It is not a pastoral country. Cows are always kept in barns, therefore no fences are needed. Grain and beets were the principal crops, and the bird life was such as one might expect in a cultivated prairie country. Let me now try to describe what this country looked like after being fought over for nearly four years.
One would expect to find a rank growth of weeds, volunteer crops of grain, and a large increase of bird life due to the cessation of all sport-the kind of sport that used to kill larks and finches galore. Instead, there was a rolling plain covered with grass, weed patches were very scarce, and volunteer crops had ceased to exist. The grass was usually short but sometimes quite rank in the hollows, and in many places a species of dewberry ran along the ground, fruiting plentifully.
The trees were all gone save for a few splintered stubs along the highroads; the ruined villages, being in hollows, did not usually show from a little distance: here and there low piles of shattered bricks and
rubble indicated a village, but they were never a prominent feature of the landscape. The whole effect put one irresistibly in mind of our western prairies.
Just after our first jump in August, 1918, the plain near Monchy-le-Preux looked as if a rolling stretch of virgin prairie had suddenly been thrown open to settlers, and their wagons and encampments had flooded the country, the horse lines of our artillery looked like great herds of stock, and overhead the sky was as blue and clear as in Alberta or Dakota.
The lines of observation balloons struck the one incongruous note, for the circling planes looked like great hawks-and the birds added to the resemblance. Large coveys of partridges, sometimes fifty or more, whirred up like prairie chickens, and skylarks fluttered up out of the grass like longspurs. On the remains of the trenches and wire entanglements were a few loose congregations of migrating birds, whinchats which acted like bluebirds, a few black redstarts with a similar resemblance, pipits much like our own pipit, and an occasional shrike that might have been our own butcher bird. Raptores were very scarce, there being only a few hovering kestrels, and in the dusk a bobbing Athene owl, reminding one of the sparrow hawks and burrowing owls seen on a similar prairie in America.
The great flocks of seed-eating birds like finches and buntings which should have been in evidence were absent, with the exception of only a few scattered yellow buntings. Rooks and magpies, so common wherever the land is cultivated, were also absent, and starlings nearly so. Except partridges, all birds had decreased in number.
Of mammals, hares were common and, in their resemblance to jack rabbits, added to the prairie-like aspect of the country. Voles swarmed-a vole plague in fact, and domestic cats which should have been very much in evidence were gone with the inhabitants, although in Flanders there were plenty. Gas and gas shells apparently could not have affected the cats, for hares and mice showed no ill effects from the gas.
Birds also do not seem to suffer from gas in any form. A friend who was with the French during a very heavy cloud-gas attack put over by the enemy, observed that the only birds killed were the kingfishers along the stream, although the gas was strong enough to kill cattle miles behind the lines.
Also I failed to see a single bird victim of the chlorine gas attack of April, 1915. Up to the summer of 1918 I had invariably noted that birds seemed to be almost indifferent to shell fire, but now it was too much for even them.
Partridges (gray, I never saw the redleg) were always in evidence during our attacks, their little brown figures skimming low over the ground, silhouetted against the gray wall of our rolling barrage, often among the legs of our advancing infantry, and many were killed. In every case I found actual wounds, none seemed to be killed by concussion, although this killed horses. With skylarks we found the same condition, all dead birds picked up showed the marks of shrapnel or fragments.
Hares, during these periods, were also absolutely panic-struck. One jumped right into the arms of our general's cook, and one can guess where it went after that. All dead ones picked up, like the birds, had wounds sufficient to cause death. But the underground mammals had the hardest time of all; one would have expected them to remain below, but the concussion must have been worse there, for they came to the surface during heavy cannon fire. When lying flat for obvious reasons, I often saw voles within a few inches of my eyes, and could take them with my hand-too paralyzed to move. Many were lying about dead without any visible wound, having died either of fright or concussion.
These intervals of intense gunfire were only short periods, for there were none of the bombardments lasting for days which were a feature of the war before this stage. In the long, quiet intervals one would expect to see more birds, but they were not much in evidence.
As we neared Cambrai the country was more wooded, with fine large reedy meres near the canals. This region had been cleared of all its inhabitants by the Germans on their first occupation, for a depth of ten miles or more. Here for four years there had been no cultivation, or next to
none,-wide stretches of grassland between the belts of fine trees, open spaces, wood, and water, everything a bird would need, yet birds were as scarce as in the fighting
But once we got through this and into the inhabited and cultivated country, like magic the birds were everywhere-sparrows, buntings, and finches-in ropes on the telegraph wires, or whirring up in great flocks from the stubble, chaffinches chinking from the wayside trees, starlings in clouds, and swallows circling around the church steeples or gliding low over the meadows, just as in the cultivated country behind our own lines on the French side. Even the ugly coalmining districts had a good quota of birds, but the densest bird population was always where the land was most intensely cultivated.
Later near Brussels we came into a curious country largely under glass, where grapes were the main product; here birds became comparatively scarce again, even the adjacent beech woods had few small birds, but I was delighted to see bird boxes, little sections of hollow branches, nailed to the trees in many places-not near the houses but in out-of-the-way places.
Wild pigeons (Columba palumba) swarmed in these woods; all firearms had been confiscated and so the "Chasse du Ramier" had died out, with the result that the pigeons had multiplied without check. Flocks miles in length, resembling the oldtime flocks of passenger pigeons, flew over the beech woods to their roosts. But disease, the inevitable result of overcrowding, had made its appearance, and beneath every roost were the remains of hundreds of pigeons, eaten by foxes and hawks, while scores of dying birds moped in the trees or fluttered to the ground. This disease I found to be well known in England-a form of diphtheria.
But this is a digression and has led me away from the point which I wish to makethat absence of enemies will not by itself bring about a large increase of bird life, especially small bird life. Cultivation is the principal factor, coupled with adequate cover; when this cultivation ceases bird life goes.
I would ascribe the large increase of partridges not so much to their comparative immunity from pursuit by man, but to the fact that magpies were practically absent,
BIRDS AND A WILDERNESS
and food and cover plentiful. In other parts of northern France, unlike England, the magpie is always present in numbers, his huge nest is always a conspicuous feature in the tree tops along the roads, and partridges have small chance to rear their broods, and if they do, the broods are small.
In the thoroughly devastated region where partridges were so plentiful, magpies had practically disappeared owing to the fact that there were no trees, nor even bushes, for them to build in.
To recapitulate: Leaving the well-cultivated country on the French side of the war zone with its wealth of bird life, one came first to a partly devastated belt about six miles wide where birds became scarce, only a few species like sparrows and starlings persisting in good numbers, feeding around our horse lines; also swallows, fairly nu
merous, as there were plenty of buildings for them to build in. I will call this sixmile belt A. Next, came a belt ten or twelve miles wide, completely devastated, B. Sparrows, starlings, and swallows had abandoned this region; birds scarcer than in A. Next, was a belt on the enemy's side like A of our side, with similar physical and faunal conditions. Farther eastward stretched a ten-mile belt, not devastated nor destroyed in any way but depopulated, except for soldiers' billets, and uncultivated, with birds as in A, or probably a little scarcer than in the belt A on our side, owing to the fact that there was less waste of horse-feed, also probably because the magpie came into his own again in this belt. Lastly came the well-cultivated country that had not been depopulated, with birds in full strength as under similar conditions on the western side of the war zone.
An impression of Bourlon Wood on the Artois plain during our advance of September 27, 1918. Gray partridges and hares scurried away from the rolling barrage, running panic-stricken between the legs of our advancing infantry. The partridges, thanks to the evacuation of the devastated countryside by their enemy the magpie, grew very numerous, but most other birds left when cultivation was interrupted. Many of the birds, hares, and field mice were killed during the shelling, but always from actual wounds and not from the concussion or from gas.
In a letter to the Editor Mr. Brooks comments regarding the drawing: "This is something out of my line-my first picture of a battle and birds. It makes me laugh every time I look at it, but it is true enough all the same. Don't use it if you have any doubts. I might have drawn a little shrew I saw one particularly hectic day marching down the middle of a paré road-midday and bright sunlight -his world was disintegrating"
The New York State Wild Life Memorial to Theodore Roosevelt
By CHARLES C. ADAMS
Director of The Roosevelt Wild Life Forest Experiment Station at the New York State
HE interest of the late Theodore Roosevelt in wild life was not the diversion of a busy man; it was one of his vital needs, for which he found, with all his extensive resources, no substitute. His strong, spontaneous interest in animals was of the kind that comes only from a man with the heart of a naturalist and that cannot be suppressed or pretended.
The naturalist is generally an observer of live animals and of what they do. It was this which appealed to Roosevelt, and it is thus eminently fitting that the new memorial station, established by the legislature of New York in May, 1919, should be called "The Roosevelt Wild Life Forest Experiment Station." That it should be located at the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse, is appropriate because of what he, with Gifford Pinchot, did for forestry, and, furthermore, because in the future the forests are destined to be one of the main strongholds for the preservation of wild life for a democratic people.
The public is now coming to see as never before the intimate relation between forestry and wild life. Forestry is no longer considered as solely economic in aim. It does not mean merely the growing of timber; it embraces the complete use of woodlands for public welfare, including, in addition to its economic returns from lumber, grazing animals, furs, fish, and game, other uses-educational, recreational, and scientific--which at times may far exceed in social value that of the purely economic.
Roosevelt's Approval of the Plan
It is significant that the present memorial is the direct outgrowth of plans presented to Mr. Roosevelt in December, 1916, for the study of the natural history of forest wild life. He greeted the suggestions with characteristic enthusiasm and urged that they should be taken up "in a big way." In this he clearly indicated one of the essentials of any worthy wild life memorial. The suggested memorial, in this way, comes very near to having his direct approval, and it has met with hearty com
mendation from Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who writes: ". . . as you know it was one of the subjects that were always uppermost in my father's mind. I give my consent without reservation for the use of his name for this memorial."
The Roosevelt Wild Life Forest Experiment Station
The duties of the Roosevelt Station are clearly expressed by the New York law as follows: "To establish and conduct an experimental station to be known as "The Roosevelt Wild Life Forest Experiment Station' in which there shall be maintained records of the results of the experiments and investigations made and research work accomplished; also a library of works, . . . together with means for practical illustration and demonstration, which library shall, at all reasonable hours, be open to the public." Furthermore, the obligations of the station are to make "investigations, experiments, and research in relation to the habits, life histories, methods of propagation, and management of fish, birds, game and food and fur-bearing animals and forest wild life."
Such a memorial station as is contemplated by the law is unique, as no other similar station or institution exists in the United States, although of course, several agencies are devoted to different phases of the problem. It opens up a vast opportunity for the "field naturalist" of the type admired by Roosevelt, and it will serve as constant beacon of encouragement to young students, and to ecologists whose ardor may have become dampened by too much of the atmosphere of the laboratory or the museum, and to others who need to renew their youthful enthusiasm by realizing that detailed field study on animals is not a temporary, rapidly passing phase of natural history, but a permanent, ever persisting one which will continue to maintain a demand for well-trained field naturalists.
A wild life library of the nature suggested by the law will be equally unusual, as no such special research library along these lines has been assembled in America.
VALUABLE ASSETS OF OUR COUNTRY
Our trout streams and fish ponds afford examples of the kind of problems to be attacked by The Roosevelt Wild Life Forest Experiment Station, for the restocking of habitable waters with game fish involves an extensive study of the habits and needs of the species employed. Roosevelt would have rejoiced in this scientific study of forest natural history; he continually pointed out the ignorance even of zoologists regarding the ways of the most common wild animals, and his works of travel are filled with observations on life histories. Further, he would have been the first to emphasize the need of undertaking this study in a scientific and systematic way and under the experimental conditions of a laboratory as well as in the out-of-doors