Monday, November 28, 2011

New frontiers in bad bird behavior

Some bad animals stick to tradition: there'll always be a place for the dog who bites the mailman. But they never stop coming up with new ideas as well, as demonstrated recently in a town in Norway.

For quite some time, candles left on the graves at a cemetery in Skagen had been mysteriously disappearing. Grieving relatives even begged the thieves to stop in the newspaper - which turns out to have been pointless, because the robbers can't read. They're birds.

The culprits were identified when someone finally realized there was a connection to another problem, this time at the airport across the road from the graveyard. The runway had long been used as a tool by seagulls: they drop mollusks on the hard surface to crush the shells so they can get at the tasty meat inside. But more recently, broken glass was being found all over the runway as well.

It turns out that crows and magpies steal the grave candles, drop them on the runway to break their glass containers, then eat the wax to fatten up for the winter. Now that officials know what to look for, the evidence is clear: "We can see traces of beak marks in the candles," one said.

On the one hand, we might reassure ourselves that these birds aren't all that smart, since they can't tell which candles are edible before stealing them: Electric candles have been found blinking on the runway as well.

But on the other hand, one has to wonder if the attraction of the runway is more than the hard surface, and whether there's a more sinister plan at work here. After all, leaving glass all over the runway where it can blow out airplane tires is a good way to ensure there will be more candles to steal - by sending more people to the graveyard.

Thanks for the tip and translation to Bruce Morén-Duolljá of Animals Behaving Badly's Scandinavia bureau.

Ominous crows by Flickr user Jim Donnelly.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Turkey Revenge in the Big City

This blog has been covering the turkey menace since the beginning, most recently with actual video of an attack on a mail truck.

Don't fool yourself that you're safe because your Thanksgiving dinner takes place in an urban area. Follow the links in that first post and you'll see that as far back as 2007 turkeys were harrassing pedestrians on the main shopping street in Brookline, MA, just over the border from Boston. We've also seen them in Philadelphia. And if that doesn't convince you, how about New York City?

OK, so it's just Staten Island (says the kid from the Bronx) but that IS legally New York City. And it's only a ferry ride or strut across the bridge before the hipsters of Brooklyn and soon after, the bankers of Wall Street could be in their sights.

And remember, these are New York turkeys now. They don't mess around, as a couple of quotes from the Daily News reveal:
"The filthy animals are like a gang. They take over the street and yards and poop everywhere. It's disgusting."

"I one time saw a man at the red light taunting a turkey. His window was down and he was making noises at it. Next thing you know the light turned green and the turkey started chasing the car down the street, pecking at it."

Although this situation is getting a lot of coverage this year, it's not new. Local government has been trying without success to deal with the situation since at least 2007. Back then, one local commented:
"People with young children are afraid because the turkeys are very, very brazen. They’ll chase after dogs. They will sometimes get aggressive with people. And if you’re walking under the trees, it’s just like any bird: Plop!”

But ineffectual attempts at control have combined as usual with humans not knowing which side they are on. When one man frustrated by government inaction took the situation into his own hands, he was convicted of attempted animal cruelty for firing a barrage of bottle rockets at the turkeys.

So numbers have continued to grow, and the birds have only grown bolder. Another victim told the Daily News:
"It was straight out of 'Cujo,'" said dental assistant Gina Guaragno, 23. "I'm sitting in my car Facebooking on my phone when turkeys jumped on my windshield.

"I screamed like I was being murdered. They just kept looking at me like it was their car. I felt trapped. I was so scared."

The only small comfort we can take is that these may be New York turkeys, but they're up against New York humans: says one local,
"I've seen people grab them and put them in their cars always around Thanksgiving time. They are turkeys. It's Thanksgiving. They should look out or they will become someone's dinner."

Up close with a Staten Island turkey gang by brave Flickr user dazedeffect.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bad Animal Sex Science Linkarama

Some recent headlines in cutting-edge research into the appalling sex lives of animals:

Jealous Hermaphrodite Shrimp Murder Their Rivals

Cleaner shrimp are pretty kinky creatures, able to reproduce both as male and female. They can't fertilize their own eggs, though, so they do need a partner. And when they get one, they don't take any chances. This research found that when tankmates molt, the shrimp take advantage of their vulnerable state to kill them. This continues until only one pair is left in the tank.

Spiders with good gifts get lucky for longer
This research reveals the gold-digging nature of female spiders. The males trade gifts for sex, and the females have upscale tastes:
Male nursery web spiders carefully prepare silk-wrapped gifts to woo potential mates into having sex. But if the present is worthless -- like inedible plant seeds or the tasteless remains of eaten prey -- mating ends abruptly.

Dolphins team up to get the girl
Uh, right. They make it sound so charming, but, as readers of this blog should be well aware, dolphins are known gang rapists. The research reported in this article investigated why they do this. (Apparently "because they are assholes" is never enough for a scientist.) The results show that dolphins in these gangs are more likely to sire offspring. Big surprise, since as the researcher notes, "The female can't get away from them."

Dolphin doing the sort of job these filthy animals deserve by Flickr user septuagesima.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Just a phase?

Another penguin soap opera is in the news, this time in Canada. The Toronto Zoo is planning to split up a pair of male penguins so they can do their duty to carry on the species.

Scientists hesistate to use human terms like "gay" for animal relationships, but the two are exhibiting the same courtship behavior as male-female penguin pairs, including a mating call similar to the bray of a donkey. (Hey, as long as it works for them, right?) Said one zoo official, "It’s a complicated issue, but they seem to be in a loving relationship of some sort."

Loving or no, unfortunately, these penguins are shirking their responsibilities. Their species is endangered, and their population in captivity needs to be carefully monitored to retain its genetic diversity. Penguins are moved around to different zoos for mating, and even heterosexual pairs may be split up if they're not considered a good genetic match.

These two penguins were brought to Toronto from Pittsburgh specifically to mate with two of their females, and it's not the ladies' fault that it hasn't worked out. "The two girls have been following them," said the zoo's curator of birds, "we just have to get the boys interested in looking at them."

We've seen gay penguin controversy before. The most famous case, of course, is that of the penguins from the Central Park zoo who had a much-banned children's book written about them.

But before you leap to this couple's defense with accusations of zookeeper homophobia, remember it's not like it's always humans who break up these relationships. We've also seen a pair of male penguins who raised a chick together - and then one of them left his mate for a female.

Penguins also sometimes neglect their reproductive responsibilities for even more inappropriate partners. That photo is of a German penguin who fell in love with a boot.

And scientists have suggested the penguin same-sex attractions are, yes, just a phase: in the wild, they eventually ditch them for an opposite-sex relationship.

But in any case, in the end, the zoo says that the separation will last only as long as breeding season: once the males have gotten a female pregnant, everyone can go ahead and do whatever they want. We'll find out then exactly how serious these boys were about their forbidden love.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pugs rule

That is Wilma the Pug, who, you will not be surprised to learn, won one of the copies of the Animals Behaving Badly book, mostly because she links to this blog on her blog, but also, because I can only fight so many fights against bad animals and there were two other votes in the household from the pug overlords.

There were two copies designated for the people who came up with the best links to the blog, and the second one goes to Asherdan for posting a link in his signature in the most animal-lover politically-incorrect place possible.

And the copy chosen by pug randomizer goes to... (drum roll).... Jaydub!

The pugs thank everyone for playing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Animals don't appreciate what they've got

Haven't you always thought it would be amazing if you could fly? I don't mean in a big clunky metal tube powered by fossil fuel. I mean, like a bird - just spread your wings and go whereever you want. No traffic jams, a terrific view, fresh air. We've all dreamed about it, right?

Well, not all birds appreciate how lucky they are. In Sweden, a bunch of pigeons have decided that they'd rather take public transportation:

"They stand calmly at the platform and wait for the subway train to arrive. When it does they get on, travel one stop, jump off and then head for their favourite haunts," Rasmus Sandsten, press spokeperson for underground operator MTR, told The Local.

The pigeons are believed to live somewhere near Farsta Strand, in south Stockholm, and travel daily one stop to nearby shopping centre Farsta Centrum where there are many cafés and plenty of food to be found.

According to Sandsten, the most likely explanation is that one pigeon first got stuck on the metro by accident.

"Then, when it saw where it ended up it thought; 'this was a great idea'. Sooner or later more of them followed suit," Sandsten said.

After foraging in the trash at the shopping center, apparently most return home in a more conventional manner, since pigeons are rarely seen travelling in the opposite direction. Maybe they want to work off the calories, but I suspect they're just not smart enough to figure out how to make the return trip.

Despite the bad reputation pigeons have in some quarters, the transit agency has received no complaints. The birds are wisely keeping a low profile: "They behave well while on board and don't seem to be making much of a mess. They also choose to travel later in the day, cleverly avoiding rush hour."

However, although this story is being picked up as weird news all over the place, it's not a recent development, even in Sweden. The transit spokesman went on to explain that conductors first reported a gang of pigeons using the trains in the 1990s. "And since then the birds have been spotted getting on the subway at stations all over Stockholm," he said.

And in fact, lazy pigeons are a worldwide phenomenon in cities with subways. That photo up there was taken in the New York subway by LarimdaME on Flickr, where you can also find photographic evidence of pigeons on the Boston T, London tube, in the subway in Toronto, waiting for the Paris Metro, BART... And it goes without saying, of course, that none of them pay the fare.

So, as is often true, this bad animal news isn't news at all. It's just another of many cases where these animals are flying under our radar - or if they're too lazy for that, taking the subway under it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The dark truth behind another charming fable

It's a recurring theme of this blog that the better the reputation an animal has, the worse the real truth. It's also a recurring theme that scientists and naturalists are among the worst when it comes to making excuses for bad animals.

But it's only fair to say that it's also scientists who often do the work of digging up those dirty truths, and today we've got one of those stories.

The greater honeyguide is a bird that gets its name from its allegedly helpful behavior guiding humans and honey badgers to beehives where they can get honey. No less an authority than science writer Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science was fooled into repeating this story recently. No fault of his, since as he points out, it appears in a number of respectable sources.

But as he then discovered, it's all lies. For at least two decades ornithologists have been trying to debunk this fable to no avail. A paper published in 1990 points out that over two centuries of research in Africa, "no biologist or naturalist, amateur or professional, has observed a Greater Honeyguide leading a Honey Badger to a beehive."

But the truth is no match for our desire to believe this stuff - especially when someone even faked a video of the legendary behavior using a stuffed bird and a tame badger.

And it turns out that it's not just that the helpful nature of honeyguides a lie. They've also got a murderous secret.

The honeyguide is a brood parasite - that's a bird that lays its eggs in other birds' nests and lets those poor saps do all the work of raising their young while they go off and party. You probably know that a more familiar bird, the cuckoo, does the same thing. But you might not be aware that the baby cuckoo doesn't just settle down and join the family: they push the other babies and eggs out of the nest so they get all the foster parents' efforts for themselves.

The honeyguide has a similar charming attitude towards its foster siblings, but a bloodier way to achieve the same end: it's got a hooked beak to murder them with, which you can see in the photo above. According to the authors of the recent paper that prompted all this honeyguide discussion:

Despite being blind and in total darkness, honeyguides attacked host young with sustained biting, grasping and shaking motions. Attack time of 1–5 min was sufficient to cause host death.

You can see the researcher's actual video of this behavior in Ed Yong's post about the paper. I haven't watched it myself. He says the video is "not pleasant, watch at your own risk." And having lately seen what this man can endure on his new blog Nature Wants to Eat You, if he says that about a video, I think I'll pass.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mainstream media on the bad animal beat

This blog is often a lone voice in the cause of outing cute animals as the hooligans and degenerates that they really are. So it's encouraging to see this story from none other than the Associated Press, which reveals the truth behind a well-publicized "aawwww" moment.

The adorable photo above, of a mama bear giving her cub a ride across a lake on her back, was taken by a retiree who was fishing in New Mexico. It was picked up by TV and the news and no doubt was the occasion of much cooing and exclaiming over the amazing maternal instincts of animals.

But New Mexico wildlife officials have revealed that this bear, identified by an ear tag, has "a rap sheet as long as her arm:"
Bear No. 56 grew up in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, turning to trouble in 2002. That’s the year she was picked up at least four times for raiding trash cans, chicken coops — and sometimes houses — in the small mountain community of Tijeras.

On her fourth recorded encounter with the law, Bear No. 56 was chased up a tree and tranquilized. After that, officers decided to relocate her to the Zuni Mountains, about 100 miles to the west.

One Rick Winslow, identified as the state's large carnivore wildlife biologist, is quoted as saying that this bear has covered an amazing amount of ground, and that what's even more unusual is that she was never euthanized after four and possibly five episodes of being relocated. The state's normal procedure for bears is "three strikes and you're out," and that means permanently out.

He says this like he had nothing to do with it, but isn't the state's large carnivore wildlife biologist exactly the person who should have been in the loop making these decisions? With all the scientists we've seen making excuses for bad animals, we think it's unfortunate that the AP didn't take a closer look at this official and exactly whose side he is on. Rick Winslow, we'll be keeping an eye on you.

Monday, November 7, 2011

You have not learned your lesson

The pug is practicing to pick the winner of the book giveaway.

Have you entered? If not, why not? OK, it's awfully nice of you if you want to pay money for the book instead. But haven't you learned anything from animals by reading this blog? Why are you not trying to grab stuff when you have a chance!

Or are you such a faithful reader that you think, since you've read every single post in the archives, the book has nothing left to tell you? Well, anyone who's read every single post on this blog should have learned that there are ALWAYS more bad animals. There's a whole chapter about animal substance abuse, and what scientists have discovered about the sex lives and family values of animals... some of it shocks even me.

Post a comment with your contact information, and I'll copy your name onto one of those little pieces of sticky paper in the photo. Or go read the earlier post and participate in the extra challenge, where I get you to help spread the word about bad animals. Tell your friends! You've got till November 14.

We return tomorrow to your regularly scheduled bad animal reporting service.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More than just your bird feeder is at risk

A couple of squirrels gained some notoriety on both sides of the pond recently.
Last month in St Louis, a squirrel got a huge amount of media coverage for interfering with baseball games - we'll just let a link to the animal's Wikipedia entry stand for all of it, describing its subsequent celebrity in song, on T-shirts and Twitter, etc.

At about the same time, TV viewers in Britain were shocked when they were watching a nice, family-friendly baking contest, and were treated to a clip of some nature footage - which included a a squirrel flasher:

For those who were fortunate enough to miss this offense on the broadcast, it was still hard to avoid, because again the hooligan got all kinds of press.

Squirrels commonly interfere with more important things than entertainment. It was no effort at all to find enough stories of squirrels causing power failures to link every highlighted word in this sentence to a different incident.

And while the magazine cover illustration above may seem extreme, squirrels do attack people. One ran amuck in a town in Vermont earlier this year, and if you read the book, you'll find several cases of them attacking innocent children, sometimes in their own classrooms and playgrounds.

They also cause car accidents when do-gooders swerve to avoid them. In California, the result of one such incident was rather spectacular when the driver hit a fire hydrant instead:

And yet some people even take these animals into their homes. A couple in Cornwall rescued a gray squirrel that had been attacked by a cat and nursed it back to health. They don't seem to realize that this can only end badly, despite the obvious evidence in the animal's addiction to Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes: "If she doesn’t get them she goes berserk and will run around the room jumping on my shoulder until she gets a bowl."

Not all squirrels wait for an invitation into your home, and one man in Sweden found that authorities not only didn't help, they stood in the way of his self-defense. A squirrel repeatedly broke in to his house and trashed the place, but it took two months for local government to decide it would be OK for him to attempt to shoot it - after he also gets permission from the police.

Don't forget that any gray squirrel in Britain is badly behaved almost by definition, since they're an invasive species that's driving the smaller, cuter red squirrel to extinction; grey squirrels now reportedly outnumber the native reds by 70 to one.

But in one part of Britain, they've got the right idea what to do about the invasion of grey squirrels, joining a trend we've seen before: They're eating them.

A company in Cornwall is using them in the filling for Cornish pasties, the traditional local meat pie. The owner points out that squirrel meat is environmentally friendly and, of course, free range: 'At a time when people are looking closely at food miles and ethics, grey squirrel is the ultimate in environmentally sustainable meat.'

But they don't attempt to hide the element of revenge: All profits from the sale of the meat will be donated to the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.