Best Defense

Today’s military puzzler: What is it about British generals and bird watching?

That is the question that occurred to me as I was reading Ravens in Winter the other day.


Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on Dec. 6, 2016.

That is the question that occurred to me as I was reading Ravens in Winter the other day. (Great book, btw.) In it, the author mentions in an aside that, “British Major-General H.P.W. Hutson observed a communal roost of ravens, kits and starlings in Iraq.” (Little grasshoppers of course know that such mixed corvid roosts are unusual.

This of course immediately reminded me of all the mentions of bird-watching in the World War II diaries of General Alan Brooke.

Why were British officers so into ornithology? My three guesses:

— Bird watching is inexpensive, and a healthier way to pass the time than slugging back gin & tonics.

— Bird watching takes time, and may officers had a lot of that on their hands in their deployments to backwater colonies.

— Bird watching, unlike drinking, requires close and thoughtful observation. As we discussed here a few years ago, Sibley’s Birding Basicsoffers some tips helpful to counterinsurgents:

 “Watch the edges of the flock and pay special attention to outlying birds or those that act differently; they may be a different species.”

 “Consider the time of day.”

“Anticipate the birds’ needs.”

“Follow the birds. If you find a number of birds in an area, consider why they might be there. Is there a concentration of food? Is it a warm or cool spot?”

“Another important point for beginners to understand is that bird identification is not an exact science and often does not involve absolute certainty.”

“Looking at a bird with prejudice, having already determined that it is likely to be one species and leading only to confirm that identification, will lead you into error.… Guard against forming an opinion until all of the evidence is in.”

And, from Ravens in Winter, two more counterinsurgency lessons from birdwatching:

— “Progress often depends more on how well one follows the situation than on how well one controls it. Especially when control is difficult.”

— “When something happens every day, you tend not to notice it anymore. But it is no less significant, perhaps even more so.”

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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