strange behaviors

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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Happy Birthday, Elliott Coues

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 9, 2012

“Never put away a bird unlabelled, not even for an hour,” a nineteenth century field guide advised, “you may forget it or die.”  The author was Elliott Coues (9 September 1842-25 December 1899), in his Handbook of Field and General Ornithology.

Naturalists did in fact die, in depressingly large numbers, and they could also be forgetful.  Attaching a label to the leg, with the chicken-scratched details of place, date and habitat, was the only way to make sense of a specimen months later, especially since naturalists then sometimes took dozen of specimens in a day. Collecting multiple individuals within a single species was a way to compile a thorough scientific record of normal variation—the little differences between juveniles and adults, or males and females, or separate populations on neighboring islands.  Even the ordinary differences among individuals in the same population could be crucial for sorting out where one species ended and another began.  Taking multiple specimens also mattered to some naturalists because selling duplicates to collectors back home was their only means of support.

Coues did his scientific work mainly in the service of the U.S. Army, where he was part of the great tradition of military surgeon-naturalists, and later for the Smithsonian Institution.  He joined the Army as a medical cadet in 1862, and served, including long periods on the American frontier, until 1881.  He was a careful scholar and what he once said about bibliography applied equally to his work as a taxonomist, “It takes a sort of an inspired idiot to be a good bibliographer, and his inspiration is as dangerous a gift as the appetite of the gambler or dipsomaniac—it grows with what it feeds upon, and finally possesses its victim like any other invincible vice.”

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