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I recently finished reading an historical account of WWI that was very interesting. Actually, I say 'interesting' but what I really mean is 'appalling' since I count WWI as one of the top 5 stupid, horrifying, and generally incomprehensible events in the history of mankind. All wars are essentially tragic and stupid, but WWI has a special place in the annals of human idiocy.
One of the worst aspects of the war was the cruel use and deaths of animals used by all sides during the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of horses were killed during combat, from abuse, starvation or environmental factors. I won't horrify you with any stories about the terrible suffering of animals, but I did read something that I thought was truly amusing.
WWI saw the introduction of submarine warfare on a global scale. The Germans, naturally, were sort of the masters of this new addition to the killing fields and they possessed technology very much at the forefront of submarine science. In fact, they were so advanced that the Treaty of Versailles stated that all the German submarines that remained at the end of the war were to be turned over to the allies, a proviso which, of course, was a lot more about stealing the technology than disarming the Germans. During the war, there was a great deal of scrambling around by the Allies trying to devise a way to deal with the German U-Boats, which were pretty much creating havoc wherever they went in stealth because this was before the invention of sonar. One of the methods included the use of sea gulls, who were recruited by the British into service.
Some genius decided that sea gulls could be used to reveal German submarines if they were trained to seek out an land on the tops of periscopes out at sea. To this end, the British Navy, using their own subs, attempted to train the gulls by putting food on the top of periscopes with the assumption that if the gulls thought that there would always be food on periscopes they would land on them in the ocean, thereby revealing the hidden underwater death machine beneath with the added plus of the gulls defecating all over the periscope lens, thereby rendering the crew blind of whatever was happening above the water. This may sound like a reasonable plan except for two factors that the numb nuts who devised this genius plan neglected to factor in. First of all, sea gulls are not sea gulls, they are just gulls. They are a land bird, not a sea bird, so they never go very far out to sea, so they are unlikely to be doing any detecting of periscopes unless the submarines were close to knocking on your door. Secondly, it evidently did not occur to anyone that the gulls, not caring a wit for the doings of bloodthirsty nations of humans, would be utterly indifferent to whom a periscope belonged and were therefore, just as likely to have lunch and relieve themselves on an allied periscope as soon as they would a German one. Needless to say, the plan was a bust.
In the meantime, some braniac in Australia was coming up with a plan to use Australian Lyrebirds in the war effort. Lyrebirds are truly amazing animals. They are the greatest mimics in the animal kingdom and are kind of like bird tape recorders. They can hear a sound, whether it is the song of another bird or the sound of a jackhammer, download it into their little bird brain computers, and then reproduce it so accurately that it is uncanny. Apparently, they mimic anything in their environment and retain the memory of it even when it is removed. Naturalists have found Lyrebirds in the wild who can mimic the sound of the chainsaws that are busily destroying their environment, which while rather sad, is still amazing. They can even mimic the sound of musical instruments, particularly wind instruments. A Lyrebird is an amazing creature. So amazing, in fact, that some enterprising idiot thought that it would be a jolly idea to train Lyrebirds to mimic the sounds of artillery and aircraft, take them into battle, and fool the Germans into thinking that they were about to be shelled and strafed by a bunch of guns and planes that didn't exist. Tricky, right? Not so much. For reasons that are nearly impossible to understand, they neglected to think about the fact that Lyrebirds tend to make whatever sound they like whenever it suits them and just because you tell a Lyrebird to sing like a biplane, it is just as likely to whistle Dixie or sing like someone playing Mozart on a flute, which while marvelous, is unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of a bunch of German soldiers. Oh, laid plans and all that.
All things considered, it would seem that the best idea would be to leave animals out of our great tradition of thinking up new and fabulous ways to slaughter each other. Who knows? Someday the only human sounds on earth may be whatever the Lyrebird can remember.
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