In 1949 the following paper was published in Ibis the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The title was: Rook and Jackdaw Migrations Observed in Germany 1942-1945.

1942-1945? Wasn’t something else going on in Germany then?

So who exactly was doing the observing while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War? The compilers of this article were John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston, who were POWs in Germany at the time. There were many ways POWs sought to escape the boredom of captivity: reading, acting, playing music, painting, doing academic courses of various different sorts, sports, escape activities and yes, bird watching.

The amount of time they put in was extraordinary. Here is a run down of an average day’s bird watching during the summer :

6-8.30 watching


9.30-12.30 more watching


1.30-5.30 watching again


6-9.30 more watching with a break at 19.30 for supper

That is a great many hours to look at the sky. These men were incarcerated in Germany where most of the camps were situated away from towns and cities and many were in wooded areas. In addition officers, unlike the ORs, did not have to work and therefore had time on their hands. The 16 page note they produced had the occasional wry aside that bore witness to the extraordinary circumstances of their observations. For example it was noted that the rooks enjoyed feasting on fields covered in human excrement!

In his wonderful book Crow Country Mark Cocker has this to say about the obsessional aspects of bird watchers:

‘Perhaps all monomanias … are a way of offsetting some deeper pain in life.’

Well, I think in this case it’s highly probable that the pain was that of captivity, hunger, boredom, and anxiety about loved ones back home and how the war was progressing. Looking into the air, looking at birds which were free to fly where ever they wanted maybe gave them some reprieve from their incarceration.

Waterston suffered severe kidney damage when he was captured in Crete in 1941 but took an active role in the Dössel camp bird watching. However in 1943 he was allowed to go home because of his ill-health. Another bird man, his friend Ian Pitman, demanded to be repatriated at the same time. When he was challenged as to the fact that he seemed in perfect health, he took out his glass eye and slammed it down on the German Commandant’s desk and was thus sent home with his friend. After the war the two of them bought Fair Isle in the Shetlands and established it as a migration study site. Condor and Waterston became two of the leading environmentalists of their age. John Buxton became a distinguished Oxford don and poet.

In the film The Great Escape  there’ s a scene where the prisoners are being given a lecture on birds and it’s a cover for them forging documents.

Finally, for those of you who like your escapes a bit more physical. Here’s that famous attempted escape sequence with Steve McQueen and the stunt he executed himself. An iconic film star, a tasty motorbike, some beautiful mountains and quite a nifty bit of music to accompany it as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score. He also wrote the film scores for The Magnificent Seven and Thoroughly Modern Millie amongst many others. If you’re interested in finding out how crows figure in my book Far Away here’s the link:

How do you escape? Motorcycles or bird watching? Or … ?

Sources: Mark Cocker: Crow Country, Midge Gillies: The Barbed-Wire University.


    • I love the book. It’s a bit like The Shepherd’s Life – I never knew I could get so fascinated by sheep. Crow Country got me very interested in crows! I suppose the truth is if something is well written enough anything can be gripping.

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    • You know that was the weird thing, I didn’t. The fairy story was well under way before I read about the bird watchers in Crow Country. I had a kind of ‘Ahhhh…’ moment because I’d been struggling with the relevance of the fairy story and then I thought no, this is OK, don’t worry. It was a relief! Hope ColourWorld is thriving!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Well, in that case, it shows how completely, as a novelist, you got into the minds of your characters. The fairy story in ‘Far Away’ I found wholly original and completely seemed to fill the void with imaginary escape for the POW when physical escape was so impossible.
    What an intuitive writer you are …


  2. Love the birds story. The Steve McQueen sequence is a bit of escapism in another sense too: from playground trivia I remember that he’s riding a Triumph TR6, which was only made – and in England, not in Nazi Germany – from 1956 onwards. So Steve must have been a time traveller. I always wince when he gets caught up in the barbed wire at the end of this sequence.


    • Thanks Mel – I presume McQueen said it’s the Triumph TR6 (thanks for that info!) or nothing. He must have had the star power to make the demand. It’s a very potent sequence – freedom so close and yet …


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