Birds in War

Birds in War

With all of the bombing and explosions and smoke everywhere, the impact of all of that on birds and other wildlife can be so significant that it is hard to speculate on the extent . . . [I]t is like a web, like breaking glass and watching it shatter out through the whole pane. 

–Mark Shieldcastle, “As War Rages on in Ukraine, Animals Are Caught in the Crossfire,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 21 March 2022.

24 February 2022

I am at a writing residency in the foothills of Amherst, Virginia. I wake with morning light. Beyond my balcony, a wave of mountains emerge in lavender and mauve. Two doves come in for a soft landing on a tree ten feet away. The air is cold and brisk. I dress for breakfast, check the news. Russia is invading Ukraine, I learn, and wish to unlearn. After breakfast, I take my computer and walk the pebble path to my studio at the barn where I spend the day writing, drinking tea, napping.

26 February 2022

After lunch, I leave my studio and walk back to the residence hall where the coffee bar is open all day. I pour coffee into my insulated pink mug, stir in sugar and creamer, head back to my studio. Budded jonquils are thick, sheaths still green. I doubt they will open before I leave in two weeks. Afternoon sun hits my back. I have a novel to finish.

27 February 2022

A Ukrainian woman and her parrot flee to Poland.

29 February 2022

A rainy day and chill. Late afternoon, bunched clouds break open at the horizon, sending light into my studio. I do yoga. On the way back to the residence hall for dinner, I pass a net of bushes. A blue jay squawks. Overhead a hawk circles.

After dinner, I check the news. A forty-mile Russian convoy has entered Ukraine, headed toward Kyiv.

1 March 2022

I walk among the boxwoods at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, inhaling their resinous scent. Bluebirds fly overhead, zips of blue. They nest. I see them every time I visit this place. Bluebirds and mockingbirds, those scissor flyers, bombardiers.

Only later do I learn that ten Ukrainian civilians are killed and thirty-five wounded during a Russian bombardment of Kharkiv.

8 March 2022

I am home. Four cardinals roost in the crepe myrtle beyond my writing window. I’m on my second cup of coffee. My novel is with my agent and I’m unmoored. There’s nothing I can do but start another one. Oh, there are other things I can do. Taxes, for example, clean out the attic, cart items to Goodwill, scrub the bathroom tile. What the people of Ukraine wouldn’t give for an ordinary day.

9 March 2022

Wettish day but not gloomy. One cardinal in the crepe myrtle this morning. A black cat crosses the road. I wish it were a fox but it isn’t. Reports that Russia will attack Odessa. Elderly people can’t evacuate. Or perhaps they won’t. Seven bears are transported by truck from the Kyiv zoo about four hundred miles to the west, traversing dangerous territory and passing through multiple checkpoints.

11 March 2022

A morning of writing, a walk with the dog. We run up on five chickens in a neighbor’s yard. The dog spots them first. They peck in the grass, unperturbed. The chickens are large, brown and gray, full of their chickenness, their small heads turning to look, then back to pecking. I laugh at their oddity in our old suburb.

Ukrainians, still in their homes, shelter animals, chinchillas, cats, dogs, parrots.

My rhythm is still off since returning from VCCA. I want to sit with my coffee and look at the mountains. I don’t want to shop for groceries or fix dinner. I keep going out to buy lunch, dinner, coffee and scones.

12 March 2022

Last night I filled the birdfeeder. Just before dawn, rain arrived, hard and whipping. Now four male cardinals flit and light in the crepe myrtle. I finish my first cup of coffee. The sun comes out, turning the limbs silver. A few yellow leaves still hang on the sugar maple, and we’re in March. I hadn’t noticed until today when sun after rain has set them glowing. Buds on the dogwood press to open. I can almost hear them straining.

Where are the birds in Kyiv? Isn’t it nesting time for them too, just as it is in North Carolina? The turtle dove, the collared dove, the woodpecker, the red-backed shrike, the house sparrow?

A hard freeze predicted tonight. We cover budding hydrangeas with blankets.

In Marhalivka, a Russian rocket hit a man’s house. Twelve people reside here: two grandchildren, two nieces, wife, daughter, sister, and others. Only he, Ihor Mazhayev, and his cat survive. He flees to a nearby town to seek shelter.[1]

13 March 2022

The hydrangea buds survive.

Environmental scientists have studied the effect of extended wars on birds: “[H]abitat degradation caused by the war may have also influenced FIDs [flight initiation distances], with birds in degraded or open habitats displaying potentially longer FIDs. While the mechanisms linking war and escape responses of birds remain unclear, war evidently ha[s] left legacies of behavioral responses in bird species.”[2]

It’s four p.m. in Kyiv, thirty-two degrees. By chance, it’s thirty-two degrees in Raleigh at ten a.m.

Our eight year-old granddaughter visits. She swings and climbs trees and throws Frisbees for the dog and then she comes in, throws her arms wide, “There are so many cardinals out there!” They blaze back and forth across our wide front yard because we’re feeding them. Because the hardware store is open and not all of our money has been appropriated for our own survival. We have a car. The roads are neither shelled nor blocked.

At first Ukrainians evacuate with cats and dogs. But many dogs are left. Caretakers at shelters stay with animals, traumatized by bombings.

(I cannot control this writing. It is going to get away from me. There’s too much.)

14 March 2022

9 a.m. Thirty-three degrees in Raleigh. 2:53 p.m. Forty-three degrees in Kiev. I go out early to fill the birdfeeders.

Inventory of birds that visit my front yard:

Northern Cardinal

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Wren

Tufted Titmouse

American Crow

Red bellied Woodpecker

Blue Jay

Eastern Bluebird

American Robin

Downy Woodpecker

Eastern Towhee

Northern Mockingbird

American Goldfinch

House Finch

White-breasted Nuthatch


Eastern Phoebe

Pine Warbler

Dark-eyed Junco

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Barred Owl

Red-tailed Hawk

I walk the dog for an hour, hear an aircraft overhead. The sound does not send me for cover. Though by the time I get home, I have thoughts about nuclear disaster. In Nagasaki and Hiroshima birds burst into flames in midair when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs.

15 March 2022

Red-bellied woodpecker in the crepe myrtle this morning. A thrumming noise fills my ears. It comes from my own throat, a sound of joy.

Twenty days of war in Ukraine. Three million Ukrainian refugees.

Ukraine is home to 425 bird species. What birds are on the grounds of the Mariupol theater where children shelter when it is hit by Russian bombs and 300 Ukrainians die?

17 March 2022

A rainy morning and with the time change, it’s gray at eight a.m. Yet a red cardinal bobs on a branch of the crepe myrtle. I hear its call through closed glass, even against the thunder.                      

Tonight we have two owls in our front yard. We hear them first, then walk out to see their dark bunched forms.

20 March 2022

The first bird in the crepe myrtle today is the female cardinal, then three male cardinals.

I correspond with a Ukrainian woman on Facebook. She posts pictures of crocuses in her yard. They are “hatching,” she says. I’ve asked her about birds. She doesn’t have time to answer between waiting for electricity to return, learning when groceries may reach a near-by store, and hiding in the basement when she and her children hear shelling. Still, in moments of quiet, she walks in the garden to observe the crocus.

Two chickadees arrive and depart the crepe myrtle. A bluebird arrives like a miracle.

Later, my Ukrainian friend, I’ll call her L, posts a picture her elder son has drawn for me: a dove, in blues and yellows, for Ukraine. The family lives in a working-class region of Chernihiv Oblast, eighty miles from Kyiv. The town is surrounded by landmines. L isn’t sure who placed them there. They lurk in fields where Ukrainians normally plant wheat and corn. A local checkpoint commander says “the front is everywhere” and waves his hand.[3] Could a mine be set off by a ground bird?

21 March 2022

L says the night was “very much” not quiet; sirens going off. In the morning when it is quiet, she goes out into the garden. She tells us that while the bees are alive, there is life. The national animal of Ukraine is the common nightingale, harbinger of spring. Nightingales winter in the dry savannahs of sub-Sahara Africa. Where are they now on their route? Are they flying over the desert, over Saudi Arabia? Iran? Have they arrived in Ukraine to clouds of ash and smoke rising from bombed cities?

In Birding Babylon, Jonathan Trouern-Trend writes about watching wood pigeons near the north pond on his base in Iraq. “A pair of F-16s came tearing down the runway with their afterburners going. The noise was incredible as they quickly disappeared into the sky. The birds were unfazed.”[4] And yet, I cannot believe the birds in Mariupol are unfazed. Surely they have flown from the city and into surrounding woods.

24 March 2022

Rainy morning. A bird sings loudly out the window as I fix my coffee. Seven long notes, then eight, then five, then seven, eight, six, all the same note. The white-throat sparrow.

A month ago Ukrainians woke at 5:07 to sounds of explosions. Each day since has brought air-raid sirens and breaking glass. L calls Russia “terrorist country,” firing on civilians in their apartments, pregnant women in hospitals, children in their beds. L prepares for her youngest son’s seventh birthday. She spends days gathering the ingredients to make the cake. She cuts it into pieces, soaks it in cream, and tops it with chocolate icing.

The dogwood outside my window is frilly with white blossoms. Yesterday afternoon a squirrel emptied the feeder and this morning no bird alights on the crepe myrtle though one wheels by my window.

Has L served her cake? It’s eight a.m. here, two p.m. in Ukraine.

In favorable conditions, birds in urban landscapes need green zones, riparian corridors, “linear protected lands composed of natural vegetation, or at least vegetation that is more natural than in surrounding areas”[5]

I read a paper on bird populations in Lviv, where cemeteries are a significant forested area for birds. The paper studies two areas: parks and cemeteries. Species richness in Ukrainian green space occurs during breeding season, which starts now, in March, and goes through July. What is the present state of forested areas in Lviv?

On the Raleigh greenway, I see great blue herons, cormorants, eagles, egrets.

Where are the birds this morning? I see not a one in the crepe myrtle. Loneliness creeps in and I wonder why I’m sad, what is amiss in my world? My throat is full. My chest feels hollowed out. Finally the cardinal shows up at nine o’clock.

26 March 2022

L reports that the Yasnogorodka family ecopark, not far from Makarov, in the Kiev region, is damaged by shelling. Many animals die; the aviaries, she says, simply burn down. She posts a photograph, the shells of buildings consumed in fire and beyond them a charcoal sky. The park owned three hundred ostriches. Did any escape? Imagine a thousand wings thrashing against enclosure.

Cardinals have taken over my crepe myrtle this morning. They fly, land, nod their heads, fly, return, consider, fly. A female stays longer. A purple finch alights. Here is a juvenile brown thrasher, large as a robin, chest puffed, white feathers painted in brown flecks, head cocked, eyeing my window. A chickadee appears, two tufted titmice land, peck, fly.

The crepe myrtle is still leaf-bare, the last tree to bud, offering an open view this chilly spring day.

Later I see a chipping sparrow in the yard, its reddish-brown cap giving it away. Though I pass close to its perch in a bush, it does not flee.

27 March 2022

We visit “Wings of the City,” an installation of sculpture by Jorge Marin. Our granddaughter stands on tiptoes before two giant bronze wings, stretches her arms high, the city skyline behind her. For a moment, she flies.


“Blasts heard in Ukrainian cities as Russia intensifies attacks.”

“Ukrainian intelligence says Moscow wants to carve up the country like North and South Korea” ‘It’s 2 p.m. in Kyiv. Here’s What You Need to Know” (CNN). 

“Concert Between Explosions provides respite in Kharkiv Subway Shelter” (Washington Post).

“Russia Intensifies Attacks, with Mariupol on the Brink” (New York Times).

Bombs fly.

29 March 2022

L’s neighborhood is bombed and her home is damaged. The house next to hers is destroyed. She and her family are safe. How fare the yellow crocuses?

1 April 2022

L and her two boys flee their home for a safe place in Ukraine. She leaves her husband behind. For now, her garden is lost to her. I pull the blinds on my writing window. Still, I imagine the cardinal streaking by, the beating heart of the world. ■



[1] Bethany Dawson. “Photo Shows a Ukrainian Man Clutching His Cat.” Business Insider, 12 March 2022. 

[2] Jonathan Gnanapragasam. “Study Shows Civil War Left Long Lasting Trauma in Birds,”  Groundviews: Journalism for Citizens. 18 November 2021.

[3] “Mine Warfare on Kyiv’s Eastern Front,” France 24, 3 March 2022.

[4] Jonathan Truern-Trend. Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Jounral from Iraq. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006. p 37. 

[5] Jamie Mason, Christopher Moorman, George Hess, Kristen Sinclair. “Designing Suburban Greenways to Provide Habitat for Forest-Breeding Birds,” Landscape and Urban Planning 80 (2007), 153-64. 

Elaine Neil Orr is professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she teaches world literature and creative writing. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville. Author of A Different Sun, two scholarly books, and the memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life, she has been a featured speaker and writer-in-residence at numerous universities and conferences and is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She grew up in Nigeria.

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