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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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The Tank
Commander's Titmouse

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A number of years ago, I was invited by the late Dr. Milton Trautman and his wife, Mary, to go birding with them and their weekend house guests, a couple from Vancouver, B. C., Werner and Hilda Hesse. Werner was a personable chap, a burly good-natured man in his 40s with inquisitive blue eyes, close-cropped sandy hair, and a ready smile. He and Hilda had become avid birders during their residence in British Columbia. They were both originally from Germany.

During World War II, Werner was a tank commander in the German Wehrmacht. I like to think he was just a conscripted army officer doing his job. Perhaps he was trained by General Heinz Gadarian, who devised the Blitzkrieg strategy that was so successful in overrunning the Low Countries during the first part of World War II.

I don't even know what theatre of operations Werner was in. Looking back over the years, I wish I had asked him some questions about that time of his life. But in those years, not too long after the war, such questioning seemed the improper thing to do.

This much I did know. In a battle with American forces he was captured and as a prisoner of war and a commissioned officer he was sent to the United States where he was interned at White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia. During the war years, the U. S. Army had converted the famous resort into a prisoner of war camp for top echelon German officers.

Although the daily routine for inmates was fairly strict, there were problems with a minority group of hard-core Nazis whose behavior was described in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly. Werner's easy manner and outgoing personality, on the other hand, served him well; he made many friend amongst the prison guards and administrators.

When the war ended, Werner obtained papers from the U.S. Immigration Service allowing him to stay in this country. He was joined by his fiancee, Hilda, and together they toured the United States and Canada looking for the ideal place to settle down.

They chose Vancouver. Werner got a job with the Canadian National Railroad and worked his way up to a managerial position. He and Hilda became interested in birding and traveled throughout the West in search of species they had never seen.

Now here they were in Ohio. We had been joined by Doug and Ann Dow, of Hamilton, Ontario, and we were hiking through the Clear Creek Valley. It was a gorgeous day in May and there were lots of birds around. Many of them were new to the Hesses, including some of the more common year-round resident species.

As we walked down the road, we men were walking about twenty yards ahead of the three women. This seems to happen frequently, doesn't it? It also happens at parties. The men gather in the kitchen and the women in the living room, or vice versa. Many other animals-and birds-do the same thing.

Needless to say, we were enjoying ourselves immensely, discussing theories of migration, discoursing on how many bird species have evolved from common ancestors, explaining to our visitors some of the geological history of the valley. Milt, of course, was doing most of the talking, holding forth in his high-pitched squeaky voice. When we weren't looking at birds we were pointing out ferns, trees and wildflowers to our visitors.

Suddenly, a tufted titmouse, a common Ohio resident, hopped down into a bush at the side of the road, surveyed us with his beady little black eyes, gave forth with a series of his wheezy notes, and proceeded to fuss around as if we weren't even there.

The Hesses had never knowingly seen the eastern species of titmouse and it was then that I got a first-hand demonstration of how ecstatic an ex-tank commander-become-birder can get when he encounters a new bird.

Werner wheeled around as if he were still directing fire from inside his old World War II tank and shouted: "Hilda! Hilda! Come quick! A titmouse!"

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