Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Birds of War

In my last post, I noted my thoughts on war, inspired by our vacation visiting the battle sites at Gettysburg (plus a day trip to Antietam and the preserved town of Harpers Ferry).

I noted that it was humbling to stand and look at a wide open field and hear absolutely nothing, while seeing monuments that look like they were placed haphazardly but in reality connote where a regiment - cavalry, battery, infantry - was placed in readiness for battle.

However, there was something else I discovered. Bluebirds like battlefields.
Bluebird on monument. (Margo D. Beller)

Ok, maybe not battlefields per se, but farm fields where there are lots of insects. I saw more bluebirds at the various areas of the three-day Pennsylvania battle than I have at my local Great Swamp.

And it wasn't just bluebirds. At the edges, in the brush near battle monuments, were white-throated sparrows and juncos. At the edges of forests were cardinals and tufted titmouse. In the trees over the tourists climbing over Little Round Top and looking down on the Devil's Den and the Slaughter Pen were white-breasted nuthatch and song sparrow. In the long shadows of late afternoon, two pairs of Carolina wrens had their own civil war in the trees near a monument to Gen. Slocum on Culp's Hill. A northern harrier flew over the Peach Orchard. In the pine trees of the military cemetery, where Lincoln made his famous address, Carolina chickadees chittered and fed. In a tree near another field, a Cooper's hawk allowed me to take its picture.

Most fittingly, squadrons of black and turkey vultures used the warm air rising off the field where Pickett's forces charged the Union position on the ridge on the other side. The Confederacy was repulsed on this, the final day of battle, July 3, 1863. Gen. Lee and his forces slipped away down the Hagerstown Road on July 4 - Independence Day - not followed by his opposite number, Gen. Meade. The war would last until April 1865.
Wooly bear (photo by Margo D. Beller)
The birds have adapted to the conditions of the farm field thanks to its preservation by the U.S. government. The town of Gettysburg, just beyond the battlefield, by comparison, is rife with house sparrows, starlings and pigeons.

There were more than birds. There was the whir of insects, the wooly bear in the road and, at the base of the statue to the 11th Pennsylvania regiment, its mascot Sallie. This dog protected the dead for several days until the bodies could be retrieved. I visualize the dog charging the vultures no doubt drawn by the blood and stench of human and horse bodies decaying in the July heat.

Sallie (photo by Margo D. Beller)
It is ironic that this bronze statue of Sallie - who was killed in the later battle of The Wilderness - placed at the bottom of a granite monument and facing the battlefield rather than the road should somehow humanize the battle, and the sacrifice of soldiers in this pivotal battle of the war to save the union. (My thanks to "Hallowed Ground" by James McPherson, who mentions Sallie and where to find her in his tour of Gettysburg.)

The birds and insects I'm hearing and seeing around me also send a message: Life goes on.

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