Bonita A. Portzline says Gettysburg presents us with one of the great puzzles of modern humanity; she calls it the paradox of peace.

Portzline, 62, a noted local birdwatcher, photographer, and spokeswoman for the South Mountain Audubon Society, spoke during one of her regular, well-attended programs at the battlefield amphitheater on West Confederate Avenue Saturday night. She has given free programs on birds at the amphitheater since 2013.

During the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg and for some months after it, the environs of Gettysburg were a pretty good representation of Hell on Earth, Portzline said. Historical documents note the smell of decaying flesh, human and animal, permeated the air for months. Here and there, badly buried bodies protruded from hastily dug graves.

The fields and woodlands in those days were famous for their birdsong, for their greenery and tranquility.

After days of rattling rifle fire, of thundering artillery, much of the greenery was blasted to smithereens, and most of the birds were gone. The racket of destruction caused the songbirds to leave the area completely, many abandoning their young in their nests.

Many locals feared the three infernal days of the battle had chased away the birds forever, that the following spring would be quiet, Portzline said.

Happily, that was not the case, she said.

Some of the first birds to return were the scavengers, followed soon thereafter by human scavengers, picking the dead humans of their personal property and weapons.

She showed several of her own battlefield creations, photos of present-time birds perched on monuments, memorial statuary, even nesting in artillery.

“It’s an interesting thing to consider, that if not for those three days of nightmare and destruction, this area would not have been memorialized. These acres would have been built out as strip malls, housing developments, and the like. And, like witness trees, the birds we have here today are the descendants of the birds that fled that battle,” she said.

For more information on the South Mountain Audubon Society, visit

T.W. Burger began is journalism career at the Gettysburg Times in 1985. He worked for several other newspapers in the area during the 1990s and 2000s before returning to the Times as a correspondent in 2013.

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