Shell and Feather—songbirds in the line of fire

January 24 | 2024

Walking on eggshells … We all know the idiom—and how an egg, near synonymous with fragility, isn’t made to endure. For me, then, this wooden box of unhatched birds’ eggs, gathered more than a century ago on the battleground of Flanders Fields, brings to mind the pugnacity of sallies and wingbeats and the feathering of nests among the fallen dead.  

Information about the birds’ eggs is scant, their story largely unknown. They were collected in Ploegsteert, Belgium—nicknamed by the British troops “Plugstreet”—in May 1915, near to the firing line with its trenches and parapets. Now the box is conserved in a small museum in southwestern England: 31 eggs in total, 15 pairs nestled in protective moss, plus, in a lone compartment, a solitary egg. Although I’m no expert in oology, the study of birds’ eggs, I can venture an educated guess about some of the field and woodland species represented here: blackbird and robin, chaffinch and tree sparrow, all of the European or Eurasian variety. Perhaps even yellowhammer or skylark. 

More intriguing to me, though, is the why of the eggs’ rescue from the battlefield. Was their removal an act of collecting for an amateur naturalist? An effort to secure a keepsake for a child or a sweetheart back home? An attempt to salvage the unborn chicks, to oversee their hatching in a shelter removed from combat? Or a memory prompt for the future, recalling a moment of serenity in wartime? And did the person who collected them, in all probability a boy or man, himself survive?

Anyone who’s taken part in an egg and spoon race has deferred to the fragility of an egg. Whoever removed these birds’ eggs from the line of fire thus demonstrated care and agility in the face of horror and destruction. He, or she, recognized their worth. 

Only rarely do we hear about the impacts of war on species other than our own. Recent research from the Conflict and Environment Observatory suggests how about 16 million animals played a role in the First World War, with approximately 484,143 horses, mules, camels, and bullocks having lost their lives serving alongside the British troops. Birds and other wildlife in war zones experience habitat destruction and pollution, food shortages, random cruelty, and heightened risk of both disease and death. In Ypres, just 15 kilometres north of Ploegsteert, the remembrance of World War One persists in the soil some hundred years after battle—in elevated levels of copper and lead, both toxic to birds.

A recent diary entry from a writer in Gaza notes that “in hard times, being kind is one of the most difficult things to do.” Rescuing the eggs more than a century ago was such a gesture—an act of caring in a time of brutality. The fact that they never hatched, however troubling, has allowed them to serve as messengers, reminding us of the breadth and tenacity of life and the will to perpetuate it, even in the line of fire.