For the Birds Radio Program: Gettysburg

Original Air Date: Sept. 3, 1997

Even a place rich in human associations can tell us something about birds. (4:24) (Date verified)

Audio missing


Two weeks ago, on a drive through Pennsylvania, I went to Gettysburg. When I called my 11-year-old son Tommy and told him where I was, he instantly recited, “Gettysburg is the site of one of the bloodiest, most decisive battles of the Civil War,” impressing me with his mastery of fifth grade history. Gettysburg is also the site of the cemetery where Lincoln gave his famous address.

I was there with a friend who’s an avid history buff. His vivid explanations and the many monuments, statues, and relics made the past real and exciting for me. But to tell the truth, I was more interested in the birds, wondering which ones the soldiers noticed as they fought and died. Pennsylvania has a large population of vultures, including both Black and Turkey Vultures, and seeing so many of them flying over Gettysburg seemed sadly appropriate. I wondered about the soldiers lying on the fields, wounded and in pain, looking up with bewildered eyes into the blazing sun to see vultures flying overhead.

Oddly, according to the Birder’s Guide to Pennsylvania, park officials at Gettysburg try to discourage nature study on the park grounds. It’s sad, because the woods that played such a critical role in developing the strategy for the battle are filled with beautiful, mature trees that support Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Eastern Screech-Owls, Eastern Bluebirds, and a host of other interesting birds. Pennsylvania’s state bird, the Ruffed Grouse, probably fed a host of soldiers before and after the battle.

We were there on a Saturday when the mercury reached 100, and between the heat and the crowds, birds were few and far between. I saw flickers in the woods. During the war, soldiers from Alabama sported flicker feathers on their hats. To this day, Alabama is called the yellow-hammer state, and holds the flicker as the state bird. I was pleased to see this bird that boosted the spirits of so many Confederate soldiers, though come to think of it, they must have shot an awful lot of flickers to get those feathers for their hats.

A couple of park volunteers dressed authentically as Union soldiers talked to visitors at one monument. I noticed ostrich plumes in their hats. They said virtually all the soldiers back then decorated their hats with feathers and went to some lengths to protect them in battle. For birds, feathers are functional and perhaps beautiful. For us, they hold great symbolic value as well.

Although I saw far more humans than birds at Gettysburg, I did find evidence of some interesting wildlife. A Blue Jay and a whole flock of chickadees were fiercely scolding something—from the sound of their agitation, an owl or a snake. Eastern deciduous forests are so thick and lush that I could barely see the jay and a couple of the chickadees, and couldn’t get even a glimpse at what they were scolding. I felt frustrated to have so much trouble finding birds, but then thought of the reason Gettysburg is still revered today, and about how the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice on that battlefield so long ago probably noticed even fewer birds than I did.

The battle took its toll in avian as well as human blood. Probably very few birds were hit with stray bullets and cannonballs, but I’m sure nests were trampled or burned, and soldiers killed many birds for food and feathers. As humans, we naturally assess our own losses before noticing or tallying up numbers of Blue Jays and robins that lose their lives or homes during wartime. Lincoln said, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated [this ground] far above our poor power to add or detract.” Birds whose blood mingles in the soil with those brave men at Gettysburg consecrated the ground, too. Once in a while, it’s good to remember that.