Just before dawn, 7 June 1917, huge underground mines were detonated beneath the German lines by the British army. It was the start of the Battle of Messines at the Ypres Salient :
‘Then came the greatest miracle of all, for with the rose flush in the sky the whole bird chorus of morning came to life. Never, surely, did birds sing so–blackbird and thrush, lark, and black-cap and willow warbler, their notes pealed up as if each bird were struck with frenzy and all together strove to shout down the guns .In the terrible conditions of the Western Front, combatants appreciated the presence of birds as a reminder of their former civilian lives and a symbol of normality and hope. Nowadays, in times of peace, birds are part of the background of our everyday lives, but they were once centre stage, forming significant elements of the history, traditions and sports of Britain and beyond, from which a legacy of literature, language and mythology developed. When There Were Birds is not an environmental account of the great decline in bird numbers over recent decades. Instead, it is a social history charting the complex relationships between people and birds, against a background of evolving tastes, beliefs and behaviour, as well as changing landscapes and ideas. It is a lost history made up of many disparate strands that form an intriguing and unexpected part of our heritage.
No other group of animals has had such a complex and lengthy association with humankind, having been loved, feared, eaten, kept in cages, taught to speak and exploited as a source of oil, feathers and fertiliser. In addition, they have been used to tell the time, warn of poisonous gases, send messages, predict the weather and treat unlikely ailments, while also being persecuted as pests and with some species tragically driven to extinction.