strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

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    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    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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Pandemic Pastimes in the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2020

Today's photos of wildlife in my own Connecticut neighborhood are all by Kristofer Rowe.

Today’s photos of wildlife in my own Connecticut neighborhood are all by Kristofer Rowe.


Yes, the times are incredibly stressful.  But getting outdoors will help, and watching wildlife is one place where social distancing works just fine. Not only can you do it on your own, but the animals don’t want you in their faces, and you’ll see a lot more of them if you keep your distance. 

 I wrote this piece a while ago to introduce newcomers to birdwatching and other quiet joys of the natural world. I’m deleting the lead, which was about new year’s resolutions back in that peaceful time. But most of the ideas that follow still make sense in the face of COVID19.

by Richard Conniff

Instead of resolving to exercise more, lose weight, and spend more time outdoors, try giving yourself a motive to do all three. Set out to see something new at least once a day among the beautiful and often dramatic wildlife that lives all around you. Birds are the easiest way to start, and good binoculars help. But insects, spiders, mammals, plants, mushrooms, and even rocks will do. (And note: Being in the city shouldn’t be an impediment.  Matthew Wills of @backyardbeyond, seems lately to see more copulating by kestrels on chimney pots and antennas around his Brooklyn apartment than locked-down millennials even want to think about right now.)

Here are a baker’s dozen ideas to get you in the swing of things:

Gray squirrel (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

Gray squirrel (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

1. Learn to identify 10 species in your neighborhood. Go for the easy stuff—house sparrows, mourning doves, cardinals, blue jays, gray squirrels, chipmunks. Then move on to 20, 50, 100 species. Do it on the golf course, to distract your pals from your lousy swing or to remind them that birdies can matter in more ways than one. If you’re a college student stuck back at home with your parents and cursing those birds that dare to wake you up at 10 a.m., demonstrate your romantic side by learning to identify their songs. (Try here for help.  You’ll also find good stuff here.

2. Hold still and just watch a wild animal for a while, even if you don’t know its name: a cormorant diving for fish, a seagull smashing open shellfish on the rocks, a squirrel burying seeds, birds mating, a snapping turtle laying her eggs. Just look. And don’t get too close. Wild things deserve a little respect.

3. You use your smartphone to help you get started.  Try not to let it distract you from the experience, but, sure, take a picture, or record a song. When you get home, you can use it for help identifying species. I tend to report sightings, identify species I don’t know, and see what others have spotted in my neighborhood with an app called iNaturalist.  It’s free, and experts often come back to you with an answer in minutes.  If you bring your phone, though, remember to get your face out of it and start seeing, smelling, and listening to the world around you.

Monarch butterfly (Kristofer Rowe)

Monarch butterfly (Kristofer Rowe)

4. Know what can be done with four or five local species, like harvesting ramps and using them to make a spectacular pizza.  Other possibilities: Digging clams to make chowder, or chiseling a cherry boll into a salad bowl. Build a fire, and light it Stone Age style (that’s without matches or lighters).

5. Climb a tree. It was fun when you were a kid. Why not now? I ran across a photo last summer of a guy named Jason Lalla, who works for a prosthetics company in Manchester, N.H., climbing a tree with his kids. Lalla has an artificial leg. So what’s your excuse? Sure, there are risks. The eccentric 19th-century British naturalist Charles Waterton died falling out of a tree. But he was 80-something, and it was an honorable death. Still nervous? Everybody starts on the lower branches, and staying there is perfectly fine too.

6. Track an animal. Start by learning to recognize your dog’s footprints at the beach; then move on to the neighbors’ dogs. See if you can tell which one was running, which walking, or whose tracks came first and whose crossed over. Sound impossible? !Kung San bush kids in Namibia start out tracking ants for fun.

7. Rescue an animal. Maybe it just means reporting cruelty or phoning up the local animal shelter to help with an injury. But now and then, I’ve run into a wild animal in distress where I felt comfortable handling it on my own. One time, my dog started swimming toward a seagull out by some rocks. I was alarmed when the gull failed to fly away. Fortunately, my dog was alarmed too and changed course. It turned out the bird was tangled in fishing line. I covered its head with a towel, which sometimes helps calm a bird, and carried it to a nearby house, where an elderly neighbor named Hooker Judson helped me untangle the line. Then we set it free. I think even the dog was a little thrilled.

8. Learn to hunt. Maybe you just want to get a good photograph or see how animals behave when they don’t know you’re there. Or maybe, after a lifetime of eating packaged meat from the store, you want to know what it means to hunt and kill your own meal. There are plenty of invasive animals worth hunting—like wild pigs in Texas or Burmese pythons in the Everglades—if only to reduce the damage they do to native species. But learn to do it right, and follow the rules. If that takes more time than you’re willing to commit, move on.

9. Sleep alone somewhere in the wild. Yes, the backyard is an OK place to start.

10. Maintain a bird feeder. It’s a good way to start separating the nuthatches from the titmice and the chickadees. Just make sure the neighbor’s cat doesn’t use your feeder as a bird buffet. Build a bluebird house or an osprey nest stand, and see what comes to live there.

11. Read a book about wildlife for laughs and inspiration. Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is a hilarious introduction. Other favorites abound, from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and Call of the Wild by Jack London to Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen and Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich.

12. Volunteer with your local land trust. You’ll find out about little pockets of protected land you didn’t know about, meet curious people (at a safe social distance), and probably get dirtier than you meant to. But it will feel good.

13. Plan a future trip to see wildlife you’ve never seen. You may find that this will involve getting up at ungodly hours of the morning or exercising a little more than you planned to, but bear in mind what the poet William Carlos Williams once said: “I have discovered that most of the beauties of travel are due to the strange hours we keep to see them.”

Have fun, and when someone next asks, “So how was your day?,” you will be surprised how often you can answer, “I saw the coolest thing.”

Snowy egret (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

Snowy egret (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

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