William Murphy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
William Murphy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Mysterious Irish Island That's Populated by Australian Wallabies

William Murphy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
William Murphy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Peer out the passenger window of an airplane arriving or departing Dublin Airport in County Dublin, Ireland and you may get a bird’s eye view of two islands with significant stories behind them. One is Ireland’s Eye, thick with fog and gothic history—an artist named William Kirwan was convicted of killing his wife during a holiday there in 1852. The other is Lambay Island, a rocky, green terrain spread across 650 acres that was long ago used as a layover for Vikings and pirates in pillaging operations.

What really sets Lambay apart, however, needs to be seen up close—and then only if you're lucky. At any given time, between 100 and 140 red-necked wallabies roam the grounds, bouncing away from tourists and residents and grazing on grass along with cattle and deer. Natives of Australia, the displaced wallabies have attracted plenty of attention and curiosity over the decades. Who brought them? And what happens if they begin to outgrow a small slice of land more than 9000 miles from home?

An aerial shot of Lambay Island. Wikimedia Commons

In April 1904, banker Cecil Baring was browsing Ireland’s Field newspaper when he came across a classified advertisement that caught his attention. “Island for Sale” referred to Lambay, which had been owned for most of the previous century by the Talbot family and was named after the Norse word for “lamb.”

Baring paid a sum in the range of £5250 to £9000 (around $700,000 to $1,200,000 today), an investment that secured Lambay as a Baring property handed down from one generation to another. Cecil commissioned an architect named Edward Lutyens to renovate the worn castle that sat on the land; it eventually became a refuge for Cecil’s adult son, Rupert, who became a fixture in newspapers in 1935 when his fiancé, Angela, sued him for “breach of promise” after he didn't marry her. (Their published love letters became the entertainment of the day, with Rupert's pet name disclosed as "Boodles.")

In the 1950s, the Barings reportedly planned for a zoo to occupy Lambay. Among the animals brought over were wallabies, tortoises, and lizards. It’s not known how many were delivered or how many survived, but "Boodles" apparently took a liking to the kangaroo’s smaller relatives. In the 1980s, when the Dublin Zoo experienced a surge in wallaby numbers, the Barings agreed to take seven of them for Lambay.

Rupert died in 1994, but the wallabies remained. Rupert’s son, James, a pilot who owned London’s Regent Sound Studio that hosted the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, inherited the island. Once, kayakers decided to step on the grounds and ran into James, asking if the legend about the wallabies was true. It was.

James Baring died in 2012, leaving the island to the Lambay Estate Company and his son, Alex, who is a part-time occupant and plans on opening the area to a high-end tourist trade. (Alex did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)

Clearly, the unusual sight of roving, red-necked wallabies is intended to be part of the attraction. But what do the animals make of Irish landscapes when the species was reared in Australia?

“They’re actually quite adaptable,” Kevin Drees, a director of animal care at Blank Park Zoo and an expert in captive wallabies, tells mental_floss. Thanks to an ability to grow a dense coat of fur, “they can cope with cooler temperatures than kangaroos, which is one of the reasons they’re so popular in zoos.”

Lambay is not so strange an environment for them as it might appear. (It's also not the only island outside of Australia they occupy: Inchconnachan in Loch Lomond, Scotland has had wallabies for over 60 years after a wealthy vacation resident introduced them in the 1940s.) While the presence of puffins and cattle makes for what Drees calls “an unnatural grouping of animals,” they have plenty of grass to munch and plenty of places to hop and hide when their shy instincts kick in around humans. Docile, they’re unlikely to mimic the boxing kangaroos of Australian lore, and the only time they might get anxious is if a visitor brings a dog along.

“They’re very clever,” Michael Bermingham, a business associate of Baring’s who has made several treks to the island, tells mental_floss. “They’ll climb up on rocks where you can’t follow.”

Although the Barings allow boat and walking tours, it’s by invitation only: The island remains largely untouched by human intervention. Only the Barings, a few farmhands, and a veterinarian spend any real length of time in residence there. “The animals there really tend to the land,” Bermingham says. “Grazing is important to maintain it.” And while wallabies like to swim, it’s virtually impossible they could make it the three miles to shore to invade the coast.

The real problem, as Drees sees it, is twofold. Wallabies can reproduce quickly, leading to potential overpopulation problems. (Their babies, known as joeys, can feed from the mother while a fertilized egg waits for an opportune time to continue development and take over the pouch.) And because the inhabitants are descended from a small number of non-native relatives, inbreeding is a possibility.

“Inbreeding can lead to health issues, like heart defects,” he says. "You'd have to bring in [new] wallabies to keep that from happening."

For now, the wallabies of Lambay appear to be thriving. And one way the Barings appear to be keeping their numbers under control is by entering into a partnership with Bermingham, who has an exclusive agreement to claim a portion of the wallaby population for his own purposes.

“I like making wallaby slider burgers," he says.

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Bermingham is co-owner of M&K Meats, a prospering meat supplier in Rathcoole that enjoys a brisk trade in organic, farm-to-fork premium meats that he sells to high-end clients all over Ireland and the UK. Three years ago, he agreed to peddle wallaby meat sourced exclusively from Lambay Island.

“It’s very lean, very rich in protein,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the grass diet, or the herbs on the island, but it has a fascinating flavor.”

Wallaby steak, he admits, is “not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.” Still, interest in the meat appears to be gathering momentum. “Wallaby meat in Ireland—people go, ‘What?’ Some are intrigued, some take it or leave it.”

M&K appears to be taking enough of it to keep the population curbed. Culling is done on site, with hunters dispatching of the wallabies using rifles. Because they’re so averse to humans, Bermingham says it can make a round-up difficult. “The last time, it took a guy three days to get four of them.”

Bermingham also captures rabbit and deer on site, with cattle and lamb taken as livestock. Because of the island’s seclusion, he says the meat is untouched by any of the illnesses that can plague agricultural farming on the mainland.

It’s not yet known whether Baring’s plans for tourism will include an on-site wallaby dining experience. But the time may have come when the animals are less an invasive species and more an integral part of the island’s unique ecosystem.

“If it’s about nature, no, the wallaby doesn’t fit,” Drees says. “But if it’s about the history of the island, then perhaps they see the value in it. It would make a good study in human-altered habitats.”

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Animals
14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
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Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
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So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
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It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: An eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
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Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch them themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE ...

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
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Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: The male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
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Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weigh about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
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People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
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Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
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You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
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It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
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What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
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If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
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There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

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Animals
New Health-Monitoring Litter Box Could Save You a Trip to the Vet
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Unsure if your cat is sick or just acting aloof per usual? A “smart toilet” for your fur baby could help you decide whether a trip to the vet is really necessary.

Enter the Pet Care Monitor: More than a litter box, the receptacle is designed to analyze cat urine for health issues, The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo reports. Created by the Japan-based Sharp Corporation—better known for consumer electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, and the world's first LCD calculator—the product will be available for purchase on the company’s website starting July 30 (although shipping limitations may apply).

Sensors embedded in the monitor can measure your cat’s weight and urine volume, as well as the frequency and duration of toilet trips. That information is then analyzed by an AI program that compares it to data gleaned from a joint study between Sharp Corp and Tottori University in Japan. If there are any red flags, a report will be sent directly to your smartphone via an application called Cocoro Pet. The monitor could be especially useful for keeping an eye on cats with a history of kidney and urinary tract problems.

If you have several cats, the company offers sensors to identify each pet, allowing separate data sets to be collected and analyzed. (Each smart litter box can record the data of up to three cats.)

The Pet Care Monitor costs about $225, and there’s an additional monthly fee of roughly $3 for the service. Sharp Corporation says it will continue developing health products for pets, and it has already created a leg sensor that can tell if a dog is nervous by measuring its heart and respiratory rates.

[h/t The Asahi Shimbun]

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