strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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The Birds of Summer

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 23, 2015

Osprey coming home on the Connecticut River (Photo: Kris Rowe)

Osprey coming home on the Connecticut River (Photo: Kris Rowe)

My latest for The New York Times (and check out Kris Rowe’s other photos here):

THE other morning, as I sat on the porch having my coffee, an osprey came plummeting down toward me out of a smoky, overcast sky, with a fish caught in his talons. He was screeching, “See, see, seeeee!” over and over. I suppose there must have been another osprey in the neighborhood. The males can be shameless at showing off their catch, but it’s mainly for other birds, not me.

“Stick around and eat,” I cried up at him. “Plenty of room, water views. Excellent neighbors.” He went winging away instead to some other, more osprey-perfect place, leaving me muttering, “Fussy bastards,” into my coffee cup.

I am a frustrated landlord. A few years ago, local volunteers put up an osprey nesting platform — basically half a sheet of plywood atop a 10-foot-high post — in the small salt marsh behind my house. In the three breeding seasons since then, young ospreys have flirted with the platform, and even piled up sticks there, the tentative beginnings of long-term residence. One time, a male and female perched together there, sizing each other up and apparently arguing about whether this might be their dream house. But they did not spend the night. Hence I suffer from empty nest syndrome of a very literal sort.

Not all that long ago, the ambition of having ospreys nesting in the backyard would have been ridiculous. There simply weren’t any. Around the mouth of the Connecticut River, where I live, only a single nest survived in the early 1970s, producing a total of just two chicks — down from a previously stable population of 200 active osprey nests. From New York to Boston, a population of more than 800 nests tumbled down to double digits, with devastating declines also taking place elsewhere on both coasts, and on other continents.

Researchers set up a death watch in the Connecticut River estuary. But they also …

Read the rest of the story in The New York Times.

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Slowing Africa’s Population Boom to Save People and Wildlife Both

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 21, 2015

Lagos, Nigeria. (Photo: George Esiri/Reuters)

Lagos, Nigeria. (Photo: George Esiri/Reuters)

Ask any serious conservationist to name the most pressing issues today for African wildlife, and right at the top of the list, you’ll almost certainly hear about the wholesale killing of wildlife for the bushmeat trade, or the slaughter of 33,000 elephants a year to make ivory trinkets.

But the truth is that these are symptoms. And if they sound hard to fix, take a look at the much larger underlying problem, the one nobody wants to talk about: Human populations in some of most revered habitats on Earth—notably including Kenya and Tanzania—are on track to quadruple or even quintuple in this century. Nigeria, already almost ungovernable with 160 million people in an area the size of France, will grow to just under a billion people over the next 85 years.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, according to the latest United Nations forecast, the population will rise from 960 million today to almost four billion by 2100. Population density will match that of modern China. That’s bad news for human populations and catastrophic for wildlife.

So what can we do to slow that rate of growth? How do we reduce the likelihood of an Africa with not much room for people—and none for wildlife? The answers come down to four basic steps, and they aren’t necessarily the ones you might expect. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | 2 Comments »

CSI (and a Poison Pill) for Cats that Kill

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 14, 2015

One of Australia's 15 million feral cats at work on a native marsupial, the  phascogale

One of Australia’s 15 million feral cats at work on a native marsupial, the phascogale

Domestic cats have become notorious in recent years as one of the most destructive invasive species on the planet, now threatening dozens of bird and mammal species with extinction. (That’s on top of the 30 or so species they have already eradicated.) When conservationists are trying to restore a threatened species to its old habitats, a single murderous cat can be enough to destroy the entire project.

Now frustrated scientists in Australia are proposing to apply criminal forensics and even a poison pill to identify and eliminate problem cats—and possibly spare other cats that are innocent of the killing. In a new study in the journal Biological Conservation, they call these experimental techniques “predator profiling.”

A team of researchers led by ecologist Katherine Moseby at the University of Adelaide looked at restoration attempts for what they call “challenging species.” That generally means mammals that are big enough, toothy enough, or just plain mean enough that you might not think the average outdoor cat Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Eagle Says F–k Drones. Skies Now All Clear

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 12, 2015

The hero here is an Australian wedge-tailed eagle, reclaiming the skies for All Birdom (and especially for the ones that are edible)

Posted in Cool Tools, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Save the Shipwrecks to Save the Fish (and the Fishing)

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 8, 2015

(Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

(Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)


A few years ago in the Black Sea, off the Turkish coast, a marine archaeology expedition discovered a 2,400-year-old wooden shipwreck. It was still in good condition because of low-oxygen levels at its resting depth, and a video revealed human bones and vase-like clay storage vessels, called amphora, still intact. But when the crew returned to investigate the following year, fishing nets dragged across the bottom had reduced the entire wreck to scattered rubble. It was, said one archaeologist, like somebody drove a bulldozer through a museum.

The same thing has happened to roughly 45 percent of the estimated 3 million shipwrecks in the world’s lakes and oceans because of the industrial-scale trawling that has also decimated fish stocks worldwide.

But in a new study being published in the journal Marine Policy, an archaeologist and an ecologist propose a solution they say will protect these underwater cultural artifacts and at the same time Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Rainforest Birds Do Battle in New York City Parks

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 1, 2015

(Photo: Brian Harkin for The New York Times)

(Photo: Brian Harkin for The New York Times)

A month or two back, I wrote about the devastating effects of the reliance on tropical birds for singing contests in Indonesia.  Today The New York Times reports that much the same thing is happening right here in New York City:

Ray Harinarain cut the lusty Hellcat engine of his Dodge Challenger and gently lifted his birdcage from the front seat.

Mr. Harinarain, a heating and air-conditioner repairman from Brooklyn, joined a procession of middle-aged men in fedoras and flat caps, cradling wood poles and cages the size of large shoe boxes, streaming into a pocket-size park in Richmond Hill, Queens, on a recent Sunday morning. The cages were blanketed in white coverlets, some trimmed with lace. Inside each one was a delicate songbird: a chestnut-bellied seed finch native to the northern parts of South America and the Caribbean.

Sundays are race days, though the events are not really races but speed-singing contests. Two cages each containing a male finch, whose fierce calls are triggered by an instinctive desire to woo females and defend turf, are hung on a pole about an inch apart. The birds are judged on the number of songs they sing. The first to reach 50 wins.

Ostensibly, it’s a battle of the birds. But …

Read the full story in The New York Times here.

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Pandemic Ahead for North America’s Salamanders and Forests

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 30, 2015

One of the hundreds of salamander species native to North America now threatened by an emerging disease (Photo: Tiffany Yap)

One of the hundreds of salamander species native to North America now
threatened by an emerging disease (Photo: Emanuele Biggi |

Let’s say it’s 1880 and you discover irrefutable evidence that misguided human behavior is about to cause extinction of passenger pigeons—and you have this evidence in time to prevent the disaster from occurring. Or, to bring it closer to home, let’s say it’s 1990 and you have the power to stop the chytrid fungus pandemic that was unknown then, but about to send frogs worldwide twitching and suffocating to their miserable deaths. You’d do something, right?

That’s the situation the United States is in right now, with another unbelievably numerous and ecologically important animal group. The likely victims this time are salamanders and—hang on–before you say “I’m not going to waste time worrying about slimy little animals that live under rocks,” consider first that salamanders are adorable (check out the photo above), second, that they are characteristically North American, and third, that they are vital to the health of our forests.

For salamanders, North America is the Garden of Eden, and they are our true biodiversity: Of the 676 known salamander species in the world, almost half live on this continent, with hotspots of salamander abundance in the southern Appalachians, the Sierra Nevadas, and the highlands of Central Mexico.

The problem this time is that a new variety of chytrid fungus, called Bsal (short for Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans) has recently turned up in Asia, and it is already starting to do to salamanders what its notorious cousin Bd (short for Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) has done to frogs. On introduction to the Netherlands in 2013, Bsal caused Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | 1 Comment »

Why Killing Lions Like Cecil Could Be Good for Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 29, 2015

Cecil the Lion in his prime

Cecil the Lion in his prime

Here’s a counter-argument to the uproar about the killing of Cecil the Lion.  It comes from Niki Rust, a carnivore conservationist at the University of Kent, and Diogo Verissimo of Georgia State University:

The death of a celebrity often makes the headlines, but it is less common that the death of wild animal has the same effect. However, it appears that the entire world has mourned the loss of Cecil the lion, killed on a private game reserve bordering a national park in Zimbabwe. But is the recent barrage of attacks on trophy hunting, and the US dentist who killed Cecil, justified?

Let’s be clear: Cecil was killed illegally, which we don’t condone. The landowner who allowed the hunt on his reserve without the necessary permit should face the justice system. But

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

The Broken Promise of Ecological Restoration

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 18, 2015

Iron heron sculptures stand by the Los Angeles River--a concrete-lined waterway proposed for restoration to its natural state. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Fake herons stand by the concrete-lined Los Angeles River–a candidate for restoration to its natural state. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Not long ago in the New Jersey Meadowlands, a private company took a 235-acre chunk out of an existing 587-acre protected area and turned it into a “mitigation bank.” The company running the deal paid $6 million for a lease and $25 million for restoration work, altogether about $132,000 an acre. The work involved removing tall, dense stands of phragmites (an invasive grass), knocking down berms along the Hackensack River, cleaning up contaminated soil, and replanting with native species. The idea was to create a bank of mitigation credits for sale at a profit to developers wanting to fill wetlands elsewhere.

The project did not create a single new acre of wetlands. While it did restore stands of spartina grass and other native species, says Erik Kiviat, an ecologist with the conservation nonprofit Hudsonia Ltd., the restoration effort also turned the habitat of a rare plant into an equipment parking lot, killed the last remnant of bluejoint grass wet meadow in the region, and destroyed what had been the state’s only known habitat for a globally rare invertebrate, Mattox’s clam shrimp. Moreover, the mitigation credits for this work require the company to monitor the restored acreage for just 15 years. After that, almost anything can happen. But the wetlands being filled thanks to mitigation credits will remain filled forever.

In the public imagination, there’s always been something tantalizing about the idea that we can restore trashed ecosystems, or—as Joni Mitchell never put it—take a parking lot and put up paradise. But the reality is that too often, ecological restoration projects

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Freshwater species | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Putting Bees in a Blender to Save Them

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 11, 2015

Three spotted Digger Bee Habropoda excellens (Photo: Sam Droege/USGS)

Three spotted Digger Bee Habropoda excellens (Photo: Sam Droege/USGS)

If you like food, you had better like pollinators, because you eat their work. Bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other pollinators are essential to the production of 60 percent of crop species and 35 percent of total crop production. Apart from putting food on our tables, their services are worth about $200 billion a year worldwide. And the problem for farmers, conservationists, and food lovers alike is that pollinator populations are collapsing everywhere. They’re under assault from pesticides, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change, among other factors.

To fix the pollinator crisis, researchers need to know which species are declining, and under what circumstances. But that’s generally a slow, costly, cumbersome process, requiring highly trained taxonomists to prepare a species and identify it under a microscope. It can take years to get the results—and there aren’t enough taxonomists to do the job, in any case. So instead of studying them in minute detail, some researchers now think mashing pollinators into a soup may be

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »


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