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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Tough namesake for Royal Marine mission
Two ptarmigans
Ptarmigans love snow, aerial chases and gargling
High in the mountains of Afghanistan hundreds of British Royal Marines are taking part in Operation Ptarmigan, their first full combat operation since the Falklands conflict almost exactly 20 years ago.

The troops are working alongside US and Afghan allies to flush out the final pockets of resisting al-Qaeda forces.

BBC News Online's Claire Hills looks at why the operation is named after a small grouse with feathered toes.

The ptarmigan, by all accounts, is a tough old bird.

Not for the ptarmigan the leafy parklands that are home to the UK's favourite, the sparrow, or the warm, colourful climes the parrot enjoys in the Amazonian rainforests.

Not for the ptarmigan namby-pamby tree nesting, the all-too-easy pecking up of tourists' peanuts, comfy nesting boxes in Titchmarsh-inspired landscaped gardens or the security of an animal loving do-gooder with a ready shoebox if it injures a wing.

No, the ptarmigan - pronounced with a silent 'p' - prefers the wilds of mountainous terrain.

They live in Alaska because it is treeless and because it is cold.

Odd noises

They are very hard - the Vinnie Jones of the bird world.

In early spring they become totally intolerant to other males, and establish territories that they defend vigorously with aerial chases and a variety of gargling, croaking, and screaming noises.

They are small, grouse-like bird with feathered toes and white wings and there are three types.

The British Army is not the first to use the bird's symbolism

The Willow Ptarmigan lives on lower ground than its braver counterparts the Rock Ptarmigan, which settles on middle slopes and low ridges, and the White-tails which are only really happy high among rough rocky terrain and boulder-strewn ridges close to glaciers or snowfields.

The Royal Marines, meanwhile, are said to be among the best troops in the world for dealing with "hostile" terrain.

The conditions in the Afghan mountains are extreme. Most of the operation is taking place at least 9,000ft up, in an environment that is rugged, snowbound and freezing at night.

So it would seem fitting it is named after a creature of daring and great endurance.

Scary skiing

Not that the Royal Marines are the first people to use the bird's symbolism.

An outdoor group called The Ptarmigans based in Vancouver, Canada, meet regularly at weekends to do testosterone-charged activities like mountaineering and rock climbing.

And in British Columbia Ptarmigan Tours offers off-piste scary ski-tours for "the very brave".

It is also the name given to a community of 1,000 living hundreds of miles from civilisation in the Northwest Territories region of the Canadian arctic, as well as to the British Army's secure communications system.

But if the Royal Marines are looking for real inspiration there are two other namesakes.

The first is a Canadian "psychedelic folk band" and the second is a company based in Leeds, West Yorkshire.

No, it doesn't offer thrillseekers 300ft helmetless bungee jumping over a concrete car park or the chance to leap from a burning car as it plunges over a cliff.

It is a PR company, and it lists its greatest strength as "our ability to marry creativity with sound, strategic planning and research".

That could work for the marines too.

See also:

17 Apr 02 | South Asia
UK troops destroy al-Qaeda caves
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