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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Archive for the ‘Funny Business’ Category

Animals and the Medieval Imagination

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 22, 2017

Early this year, I spent some time browsing through an illuminated medieval manuscript, mostly enjoying the odd animals some long-dead monk added in odd corners of a page.

Now I’m embarrassed to admit that I have completely forgotten the sources). But the images still merit your attention. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Master of Nonsense and Wonder

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2017

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

owlandpussycat‘The first owl to lodge in my memory,” the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough confesses in his foreword to “The Natural History of Edward Lear” by Robert McCracken Peck, wasn’t the short-eared owl, say, or any of Britain’s four other native species. It “was the one that went to the sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.” Like so many other children, Mr. Attenborough was enchanted not just by Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” but also by his Jumblies on their perilous voyage to “the hills of the Chankly Bore” and by “the Dong with the luminous nose” wandering by night “over the great Gromboolian plain.”

Lear, born in 1812, the 21st child of a London stockbroker and his unfortunate wife, became the great 19th-century master of nonsense and wonder. We tend to remember him first for the ingenious loopiness of his language—an imagined world of “torrible zones” and “runcible spoons” and, of course, that “ombliferous person of Crete” who “dressed in a sack, / Spickle-speckled with black.” Lear’s fanciful line drawings—the man “on whose nose, / Most birds of the air could repose,” or the old lady “whose folly / Induced her to sit in a holly”—take a whimsical second place.

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Lear, however, saw himself first as an artist. Raised by his doting eldest sister after their parents suffered a financial reversal, he began drawing “for bread and cheese” at the age of 15, making what he called “morbid disease drawings for hospitals and certain doctors of physic.” His sister seems wisely to have steered him to plants and animals instead, and he flourished at it. Mr. Peck, a historian of scientific discovery and art at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, ranks him “among the best natural history painters of all time,” though that phase of his career lasted barely a decade.

The opening of the London Zoo in 1828 gave the young artist ample material to work with. The zoo was then an exclusive, members-only society, and Mr. Peck notes that it denied access to an older and far better known artist and animal dealer named William Swainson. But Lear was adept enough as a bird artist, and sufficiently socially acceptable, that the zoo allowed him at the age of 18 to make paintings in its menagerie for what would become his first book. Surprisingly, for those who know Lear only as a children’s author, it bore the title “Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots.”

This project soon immersed Lear in the work of finding subscribers and learning to draw backward on rented slabs of limestone. He called lithography “this lampblack & grease work,” and the economics of the enterprise obliged him to erase each precious image after just 175 prints and start over again. But it was a labor of love. He wrote to a friend that “the whole of my exalted & delightful upper tenement” is overflowing with sketches and lithographs, “and for the last 12 months I have so moved—thought—looked at,—& existed among Parrots—that should any transmigration take place at my decease I am sure my soul would be very uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.”

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Spider on Drugs

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2016

Just in case you missed this important video, suggested to me by Read the rest of this entry »

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Embarrassing Moments in Research: #FieldWorkFail Illustrated

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 8, 2016

glued-to-a-crocodile-by-jim-jourdaneScientists doing fieldwork sometimes get into seriously embarrassing, or even dangerous, situations.  Some of them end up, tragically, on the Wall of Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists.

But others live to tell the tale, and dine out on Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Music Monday: “Wondering Where the Lions Are”

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 22, 2016

Given the rapid disappearance of lions from entire regions of Africa, this song seems appropriate, though mostly for its title.

Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has said he was inspired by reading Charles Williams’s fantasy novel The Place of the Lion, which I suspect is about lions the way C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is about lions, and in that one the Aslan the lion is Jesus Christ’s avatar.

Anyway, here’s a Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Funny Business | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Animal Music Monday: Rock Lobster

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 8, 2016

I’m spending a little time in Maine, so this seems like a natural. Sort of unnaturally natural, that is. The most animal-oriented lyric goes off the deep end, literally:

Here comes a stingray
There goes a manta-ray
In walked a jelly fish
There goes a dog-fish
Chased by a cat-fish
In flew a sea robin
Watch out for that piranha
There goes a narwhal
Here comes a bikini whale!

The B-52s released the song in April 1978, and it became their biggest hit ever. And the infectious looney-toon silliness of the song inspired John Lennon Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Music Monday: Ants Marching

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 1, 2016

An ant from Madagascar named Eutetramorium mocquerysi (SEM photo: Molly Gibson)

An ant from Madagascar named Eutetramorium mocquerysi (SEM photo: Molly Gibson)

Yikes, it’s been more than 20 years since the David Matthews Band released its anthem (that may be a pun), “Ants Marching,” in December 1995.  The gist of it was that we sometimes allow our lives to lapse into a state of tedium and repetition, like ants: “All the little ants are marching, red and black antennae waving, they all do it the same, they all do it the same way.”

I think ants are actually way more interesting than DMB lets on. In fact, I once traveled to Madagascar to jump a freight train Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Music Monday: Rockin’ Robin

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2016

Leon René, a West Coast R&B producer and composer, had an ornithological hit with this song, released in 1958 by Bobby Day. It fits with a tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, of trying to imitate birdsong in music. Both René and Day found gold in the animal music theme.  Just the year before, Day sang “Buzz Buzz Buzz” with the Fabulous Flames.  René, born in 1902, had written the very 1940s hit “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” later performed by Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry, Funny Business, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Animal Music Monday: Dead Skunk In The Middle of the Road

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 18, 2016

Loudon Wainwright III is said to have written this absurdist little country tune by accident, in 15 minutes. He later mock-boasted that it made it to number one on the hit parade for six weeks in Little Rock, Arkansas, “and only very intelligent people live in Little Rock.”  It became his biggest hit, reaching number 16 on the Top 100 nationwide in 1973.

People still have a fond place for it in their Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Music Monday: From the Diary of a Fly

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 11, 2016

This is a piece by Béla Bartók, both whimsical and empathetic, about a fly becoming caught in a spider’s web. It’s built on what musical types call ostinato, a single repeated musical phrase, and somehow over the course of less than two minutes, this captures both the buzzing repetitiveness of an insect’s life and the desperation in the face of death.

This one caught my attention because I have written about flies, without much empathy, in my book Spineless Wonders (currently out of print but one of these days I will get it back as an ebook). I have also written about spiders building their webs, and in that case I felt so much empathy that I went out to a climbing wall and tried to build my own web.  I wrote about it in my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time. Here’s an excerpt:

One day back home, I was watching a spider spin its astonishing construction between my desk lamp and telephone (it was a slow day), and I suddenly wanted to become a spider, at least for a little while. I picked up the phone (a cataclysm for the spider) and found a climbing instructor named Stefan Caporale, who agreed to help me build my own orb web, in the corner between two climbing walls at the YMCA in Worcester, Massachusetts. Caporale fitted me out with a climbing harness and Jumar ascenders. I’d never done any rope climbing, but with a slingful of the metal clips called carabiners over one shoulder and a rope bag in lieu of a silk gland over the other, I felt like Charlotte’s Web meets Rambo.

I was, of course, going to have to cheat,

Read the rest of this entry »

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