strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    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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Archive for the ‘Funny Business’ Category

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 »

Posted in Food & Drink, Funny Business | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Animal Music Monday: Baby Elephant Walk

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 4, 2016

This song was an unlikely pop hit from the early 1960s, by Henry Mancini.  He wrote it for the 1962 Howard Hawks film “Hatari!” about the adventurous characters who made a living then catching elephants, rhinos, and other African wildlife to stock zoos.  These days we would call that line of work “dubious” or even “criminal.” But those were different times.

Hawks had filmed an impromptu scene of the Martinelli character leading three baby elephants to a watering hole.  But he didn’t know what to do with it.  Before giving up on it, Hawks came to Mancini and said, “Take a look and let me know if you have any ideas.”

Mancini later wrote:

“So I looked at the scene several times  and still thought it was wonderful. As the little elephants went down to the water, there was a shot of them from behind. Their little backsides were

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Posted in Funny Business, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Animal Music Monday: Muskrat Love

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 27, 2016

Yep, this is a song about two muskrats having sex. And even if most of us have never heard the actual event, muskrat vocalizations consist of squeaks and squeals, which sounds about right. The principals in this song are Muskrat Susie and Muskrat Sam, and there is apparently talk of marriage before they do the thing.  Texas singer Willis Alan Ramsey wrote and recorded the song in 1972, under the title “Muskrat Candlelight,” and this is his version.

I find just looking at the Captain and Tenille cover from 1976 hideously Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business, Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

I’m Telling Tales About Dinosaurs & Discovery in New Haven Thursday

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 31, 2016

Also the origin of Godzilla, and the sex life of Mr. Burns (“The Simpsons”). Be there.

June 2 History Community program

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Evolution, Funny Business | Leave a Comment »

Animal Music Monday: “Little Red Rooster”

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 30, 2016

Sometimes I suspect that songs about animals are really songs about people, only slightly disguised.

But you will be shocked, shocked, as I am I, that some callow writer would interpret a gentle barnyard ditty like “Little Red Rooster,” made famous in 1961 by the Chicago blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, as the “most overtly phallic song since Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘Black Snake Moan'” in 1927.

And, wait, wait, wasn’t Blind Lemon really singing about his ophidophobic nightmare of a snake loose in the bedroom? And when he finishes with “Black snake mama Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Music Monday: “Monkey Man”

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 23, 2016

I’ve always loved “Monkey Man,” from the Rolling Stones “Let It Bleed,” mostly for the great intro by Bill Wyman, on vibraphone and bass, and then for Keith Richards’ guitar.  Oh, hell, I should say I also love it because I identify so strongly with the words, “I am just a monkey man.” Old childhood nickname.

What puzzles me is that the song was inspired by Italian pop artist Mario Schifano, after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards made cameo appearances in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, Funny Business | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Animal Music Monday: “We Like the Zoo (‘Cause We’re Animals Too)”

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 16, 2016

A lot of people are turned off by zoos these days, because of that captivity thing.  This song skips happily past that whole debate, and instead plays on zoos as the place where city and suburban kids often feel their first connection with the animal world.  The writer is Walter Martin, bassist and organist with The Walkmen, and father of two young girls. Here he’s on his first solo album, from 2014. The singer is Matt Berninger, frontman for The Nationals.

Here’s Martin’s explanation:  “‘We Like The Zoo (‘Cause We’re Animals Too)’ is my tribute to Read the rest of this entry »

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John Oliver: How Not to Report Science

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 9, 2016

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Animal Music Monday: “Piggies”

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 9, 2016

George Harrison wrote the original “Piggies” for The Beatles White Album, released on November 22, 1968.  But I ran across this interesting instrumental cover from 2015 on YouTube.  If the tune were not so familiar, you might mistake it for a pretty bit of folk music from the early baroque era:

I asked a musician friend to comment.  He performs baroque and Renaissance music and, as it happened, had never heard the original Beatles tune. So he listened with an unbiased ear:

“This track started (and concluded, as well) as a completely convincing piece of Italian or Iberian music from the 17th century, in the spirit of Ucellini or Merula or dozens of others. Other than a few goofy chords in the bridge, there is little to give away that it is anything else. Unfortunately, it devolves in the middle section to a more diffuse “pan-Baroque” feel; just kind of a tacky pastiche. But aside from that, a pretty convincing articulation that “popular” music is kind of timeless and has been built on the same idioms and practices for centuries.”

Harrison intended the song as a harmless satire on the grubby, self-serving ways of the rich. According to Song Facts, he originally wrote one verse that was dropped from the final recording but resonates in a post-2008 world:

Everywhere there’s lots of piggies playing piggie pranks
You can see them on their trotters
At the piggy banks
Paying piggy thanks
To thee pig brother.”

The song produced one appalling response: Though it’s better known that  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

I’m Really Hoping That’s Not a Bullet Ant on Justin’s Nose

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 6, 2016

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

I wrote about Justin Schmidt and the “Justin Schmidt Sting Pain Index” in my “intensely pleasurable” book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.  Here’s the opening to that chapter:

     One morning not long ago, an American entomologist named Justin Schmidt was making his way up the winding road to the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica when he spotted Parachartergus fraternus, social wasps known both for the sculpted architecture of their hive and for the ferocity with which they defend it. This hive was ten feet up a tree, and the tree angled out from an eroded bank over a gorge. Schmidt, who specializes in the study of stinging insects, got out a plastic garbage bag and promptly shinnied up to bag the hive.

He had taken the precaution of putting on his beekeeper’s veil. Undeterred, the angry wasps charged at his face, scootched their hind ends under in midair, and,

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Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools, Fear & Courage, Funny Business | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »