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  • 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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Posts Tagged ‘DDT’

Sorry, Right-Wing Hacks: Zika’s No Reason for a DDT Comeback

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 9, 2016

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

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

by Richard Conniff/

In New England, where I live, this is the time of year when ospreys take their last turn on the waterways before heading south. They’ve mated, reared their young, and seen their fledglings take wing and begin to hunt for themselves. If you are lucky and know your local watering holes, you can still sometimes see them plunging out of the sky and carrying home blood-spangled fish in their talons. It is one of the great spectacles of summer.

But only for a little while longer. Soon the ospreys will migrate 2,500 miles or more, down to the Caribbean or the northeastern coast of South America, where males and females will overwinter separately. They’ll return in March, find their old nest mate (they’re faithful to mates and nest sites, more or less), and begin the ritual once again.

Carson-w-book-1-340The resurgence of ospreys from near extinction in the 1970s to their modern abundance always makes me think with gratitude of Rachel Carson and the demise of DDT as a standard tool of mosquito control in this country. Her book Silent Spring, published in 1962, first alerted Americans to the risky business of spraying the countryside with as much as 80 million pounds of DDT, an untested chemical, in a single year. One effect of DDT, scientists were demonstrating, was the fatal thinning of the eggshells of ospreys, eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and other species. The eggs collapsed under the weight of the nesting parent, and generations were lost. As a result, the osprey population in my home territory, the lower Connecticut River Valley, plummeted from 200 nesting pairs to just two by the early 1970s. The same thing happened to ospreys and other species nationwide. Then the Nixon administration banned most uses of DDT in this country, and wildlife slowly began to recover.

This year, though, my gratitude to Carson, and my pleasure in ospreys, is complicated by the political response to the devastating birth defects and deaths from mosquito-borne Zika virus, along with the persistent effects of mosquito-borne West Nile virus, which has killed

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

No, Rachel Carson Was Not a Mass Murderer

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2015

My latest for Yale Environment 360:

Any time a writer mentions Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring or the subsequent U.S. ban on DDT, the loonies come out of the woodwork. They blame Carson’s book for ending the use of DDT as a mosquito-killing pesticide. And because mosquitoes transmit malaria, that supposedly makes her culpable for just about every malaria death of the past half century.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, devotes an entire website to the notion that “Rachel was wrong,” asserting that “millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm.” Likewise former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn has declared that “millions of people, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson’s junk science claims about DDT.” The novelist Michael Crichton even had one of his fictional characters assert that “Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler.” He put the death toll at 50 million.

Carson-w-book-1-340It’s worth considering the many errors in this argument both because malaria remains an epidemic problem in much of the developing world and also because groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, backed by corporate interests, have latched onto DDT as a case study for undermining all environmental regulation.

The first thing worth remembering is that it wasn’t Rachel Carson who banned DDT. It was the very Republican Nixon Administration, in 1972. Moreover, the ban applied only in the United States, and even there it made an exception for public health uses. The ban was intended to prevent the imminent extinction of ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles, our national bird, among other species; they were vulnerable because DDT caused a fatal thinning of eggshells, which collapsed under the weight of the parent incubating them. But the ban did nothing to stop Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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 this entry »

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