Groundhogs are my 14th favourite animal

My two sons got into a heated debate.

The younger pronounced that his favourite flower was a dandelion. The older son disdainfully pointed out that dandelions were everywhere, and weren’t worth liking. Little brother passionately defended his choice, and this was answered with eye-rolling. Youngest has also declared a consistent love for robins, an ever-present bird in the spring and summer here. Again, not an older-brother approved choice.

IMG_20140523_154112A number of years back, big brother decided that groundhogs were his 14th favourite animal. When asked to list the first 13, he got to three or so before giving up. Fourteen may have (and I’m just guessing here) been an arbitrary number. This particular son also has a strong affinity for turtles (ranked #1), and this was more than definitely brought on by a much-adored family member and his rather large collection of amphibious figurines. Turtles have appeared in more than one school project, and countless artistic renderings in our house.

“Favourites” are very important among young children. Questions about favourite colours, animals, foods, games and TV shows are at the heart of early experiments in conversation (and practice for the dating scene?). But, one son appreciates plants and animals for their ubiquity and the other for their relative rarity. This made me wonder about preferences and how we form them.

As adults, do we show any particular trends? What draws people to nature in the first place? Does forming early bonds with nature, and increasing familiarity with particular species increase our affinity for the natural world as a whole?

The idea of “Biophilia” was developed by Dr. E.O. Wilson, and generally describes an innate human love for living things. However, this love varies drastically, and the variations may be due to experiences with nature.

Many researchers have demonstrated that people prefer familiar landscapes, and that increased exposure to landscapes leads to increased preferences (Balling and Falk 1982; Bixler, Floyd et al. 2002). Children also tend to define their “ideal” places by what they know (Machemer, Bruch et al. 2008). Indeed, my own doctoral research also pointed to the idea that children prefer spaces that they understand, and that look familiar.

But, those are landscapes.

I wasn’t able to quickly find much research on “favourite animals.” One Australian study pointed out the fact that companion animals often rank as favourites (cats, dogs and horses are common favourites), and that this IMG_20130504_170059preference is based on perceived intelligence, attractiveness and lack of threat (Woods 2000). This would confirm the idea that familiarity breeds preference. The study also pointed out that this information (knowledge about people’s animal preferences), can have implications for tourism and wildlife planning, and public perception. (For example, we want you to think bears are important and interesting creatures, but please do not feed them!)

In my own experience, I find the effect of familiarity breeding preference to be strong. That is the primary reason I started the “Featured Species” blog.  Identifying new local wild species is like making new friends.

So, little brother, you go ahead and love your dandelions and your robins. You’re supposed to.  Big brother, I can understand your perspective too. There are merits to both. I also find joy in unusual new discoveries, and the sight of the occasional groundhog popping up from a hole.

(I tried to get a picture of a groundhog, but they can be surprisingly quick!).

What’s your favourite animal?


Balling, J. D. and J. H. Falk (1982). “Development of visual preference for natural environments.” Environment and Behavior 14(1): 5-28.

Bixler, R. D., M. F. Floyd, et al. (2002). “Environmental socialization: Quantitative tests of the childhood play hypothesis.” Environment and Behavior 34(6): 795-818.

Machemer, P. L., S. P. Bruch, et al. (2008). “Comparing rural and urban children’s perceptions of an ideal community.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 28: 143-160.

Woods, B. (2000). “Beauty and the beast: preferences for animals in Australia.” Journal of Tourism Studies 11(2): 25-35.

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Lawnmower Man 3:  A Suburban Horror Story

IMG_20140616_192533After I finally convince my toddler to settle for his nap, I step out to my garden at the back of my suburban home. The flowers are in full bloom, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the wind is gently rustling the trees in my sanctuary. I take a deep breath and catch a whiff of Linden blossom. Ahhh… perfect. I will meditate outside toda…


Of course. Our backyard neighbour, who we have (not so affectionately) labelled “Lawnmower Man,” is partaking in his favourite daily pastime.  He is promptly joined by:




Three doors down from Lawn Mower Man live the people whose backyard has been under extensive renovation, complete with big trucks, earth moving equipment, and every imaginable power tool, for the past 3 months, 9-5, every day.

True story.

“Noise Pollution. “ The term sounds somewhat untangible, rather non-existent, as if it were invented by cranky people like me.

But it turns out that noise pollution has real health consequences. The effects are wide-ranging and vary from increased stress, to hearing loss, to sleep deprivation, to (believe it or not) things as serious as heart disease and increased blood pressure

Children may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of excessive noise. Fetuses, premature babies, and children with particular disabilities can suffer irreversible harm when exposed, and noise has even been linked to cognitive impairment in children. Children are also unable to distinguish harmful volumes, and their behaviours (concerts, headphones) can contribute to excessive exposures.

Research on the health effects of noise pollution have led to rules, regulations and guidelines around the amount and timing of loud noise. The WHO published guidelines on this topic.

But, one can only limit noise so far. City life goes on. Streets must be paved, and buildings, built. For those of us who choose to live in the busy world of lawn mowers and renovations, construction, and road work, we simply can’t avoid these things. When all of this noise is a regular occurrence in a “quiet” suburban neighbourhood, I can’t even imagine living in a busy urban area. Downtown Toronto? No thanks!

Now, some noise isn’t necessary. Things like incessant lawn mowing, and idling vehicles can easily be controlled. Frustrated by the noise, smell and pollution produced by gas-powered mowers, my husband and I got a manual push mower, and never looked back. They’re not difficult to use, and we’re not sure why more people don’t. I really wish Lawnmower Man would invest in one.

Every rumble or buzz of a machine is a loud reminder of the necessity of finding quiet, green places.  So, I use every opportunity to grab my children, my husband, and my rattled nerves and escape to local conservation areas. We can usually still hear traffic from a distance, but it is IMG_3778substantially muted. And, every year, when we take a camping trip to Algonquin park, we bask in the splendid silence, punctuated only by rustling leaves, chirping birds, and the occasional squirrel scolding us for disturbing HIS peace and quiet.

Peace Out!


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The Other Blog

For those of you who haven’t yet (yes, that’s you), please consider subscribing to my other blog “Featured Species”:

I just wrote a new post, and I’m not going to keep putting them up here!



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Tax Dollars for Video Games

readingMy sons and I go to the library every week. We attend arts or crafts workshops run by enthusiastic and creative staff. We listen to stories and sing songs. We gather a collection of too many books from the well-stocked shelves and stagger home under the weight. The library is an amazing community resource for anyone, and indispensable to a mother of young children.

But, libraries are changing. Of course they are. They should! They must! In an increasingly digital society, libraries would quickly be left in the dust unless they stay with the times. Libraries have DVDs to borrow, and electronic collections of magazines to peruse from home. Our library holds workshops on everything from computer programming to beginner Chinese. It even has a growing collection of tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters. Super! Amazing!

I recently found out that our public library also has a Wii video game system nestled in the youth fiction section of the children’s department. I also found out that they were considering loaning video games to patrons, and the only reason that they don’t (YET) is funding. There isn’t enough money to gather a large enough collection to keep any on the shelves.

This is where I do a double take: Tax dollars for video games??


Wait, that’s my husband playing on the computer in the fort….

As a mother who feels strongly about the need for children to get outdoors, as a researcher who has studied children’s health, trends in screen time and the obesity epidemic, something inside of me screams: NO!  But, refusing to succumb to instinct, I did what a good researcher should do: research.

Recent research has uncovered numerous benefits of video games. This research is growing, well-documented and easy to find.

Video game play may provide learning, health, social benefits, review finds.” 

“Research shows that video-game play improves basic mental abilities.” 

“The Benefits of Video Games” 

Besides, there are a variety of games that provide clear opportunities for learning and skill-building.  Minecraft is one extremely popular game that lets users create their own worlds using infinite materials (at least in the creative mode). It is the ultimate digital Lego. It is IMG_0102being used in places as an educational tool, and even as a means to engage children in planning communities. There’s something I can get behind! (I may do another post one day about my son’s experiences with Minecraft.)

Coordination, spatial navigation, problem solving, fine motor skills, reflexes:  it is easy to believe these potential benefits. So, if video games provide benefits, maybe the library should make them available. Alright, maybe I can relax now.

But what sorts of games are available?

I looked around at other library collections, and it appeared that many libraries loan video games. I took a look at a catalogue for a nearby library. There were puzzle, adventure and problem solving games, and a number of racing ones. Ok. Not so bad. But, to my surprise, I also found titles such as “Ultimate Street Fighter” and “Call of Duty.”

Not really being up on the video game scene, I watched clips on YouTube of these games to see if there were any possible redeeming qualities. I try to be liberal, progressive, and open to new ideas, but I simply can’t wrap my head around the benefits of children playing games where you fire deadly weapons at anything that moves, and beat your opponents to a bloody pulp.

Now, for every study that finds a connection between violent video games and actual violence, you can find one that says there is none. There are probably far too many confounding factors, and chicken-or-egg dilemmas to ever do an accurate study. Trials with randomized assignments would never pass ethics requirements (ok, you kids can play outside for 2 hours every day, while you kids play Grand Theft Auto…. see you in 10 years).

I have heard the admittedly legitimate analogy that today’s violent video games are yesterday’s banned books. Where do we draw the line? Are violent books ok? Violent movies? Clearly, I’m not in favour of book censorship, so why do I feel I can make this value judgement about violent video games? I don’t know. My young kids won’t be playing violent video games under my watch (at least for now). This may be a losing battle in the long term, and that is probably fine. After all, I played many computer games in my day, and plenty involved guns. (But I didn’t expect them to be government funded!)IMG_20120825_152501

I don’t have any say in the library debate. I’m glad I don’t. I’m glad that there are people who have done the research and understand community needs and wants better than I do.  I still don’t have to be comfortable with it.

However, one thing remains clear to me. The more time we allow our children to spend on video games, creating or destroying artificial digital worlds, the more we need to spend time showing them the real one!

Readers: I’d love to hear your views on this!

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A quick note and link.

Hello readers,

I thought you might be interested in reading this article:

Yes, I already blogged on this particular garden before, but I was happy to get a magazine article out of it as well.

Oh, and for those of you who missed the update about the SPECIES OF THE WEEK feature moving, you can find it here:

Please subscribe to that if you don’t want to miss those posts! I just blogged there too:



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Healthy Parks, Healthy People: The Nature Prescription

This past week, I attended a conference called “Healthy Parks, Healthy People.” I like attending events like this, and being surrounded by people who genuinely understand the IMG_20140914_105742importance of time in nature, not just from an academic standpoint, but also from years of experience, and a lifetime spent closely in tune with the natural world.  (

The attendees of conferences like these provide real hope for the future of parks, sustainability and human health.  There were parks managers, program directors, ecologists, students, professors, psychologists, conservationists, consultants and more.

While everyone takes something slightly different away from any event, there was one particular aspect of this conference that stuck with me. Given everything we know about the physical, social and psychological benefits of time in nature, it is time for health practitioners to embrace nature as a valuable tool both for healing and for preventative medicine.

I don’t need to go into the specific benefits of time in nature in this particular post. You can find some of my previous posts on this at the end. In short, the evidence for the benefits is clear.


Image courtesy of Children & Nature Network.

Given that fact, there is a relatively new movement of physicians providing actual prescriptions for nature time. You can read more about the Parks Rx program here.

Will this be effective? I don’t know, but I hope to see research one day. While I really like the idea, there is one argument that says that turning nature time into a kind of “medicine” may make it less palatable. Then again, perhaps a medical doctor is well-positioned to convince people of the benefits and get them out the door and down the forest path.

That said, what will be (and has been proven to be) effective, is positioning interactive wellness programs, run by professionals, into natural settings.

As the number of people with anxiety and depression is heading towards “pandemic,” and as researchers struggle to find solutions that don’t come in a bottle, simple suggestions such as the pursuit of mindfulness meditation, and time spent in nature are gaining traction. AND, the body of scientific literature which demonstrates the effectiveness of these “treatments” is rapidly expanding. There is a research field called ecopsychology that arose in the 1990s which recognizes the interactions between humans and the natural environment.

There are now countless examples of organizations that employ the natural world as a necessary partner in healing. Here are some examples:

  • At the conference, we heard from one organization that is having great success taking older adults with mental health challenges on “Mood Walks” in green places.
  • Numerous organizations take youth struggling with mental illness or addiction into wilderness areas to promote healing and develop coping strategies. Here is one such organization:
  • In Japan, in the 1980s, “Shinrin-yoku” was born. It translates roughly to “forest bathing” and recognizes the many healing powers of nature. The movement and research has even been the recipient of substantial government funding.

Here are a couple of great short articles on the topic:

Alternatives Journal – Prescribing a Dose of Nature

I have also blogged on nature & health a few times:

IMG_20140717_144950The Healing Power of Nature

Ten Good Reasons why Children Need Greenspaces

20 Reasons to Drop Everything and Go Outside

Given all of the successful research being done around the world in the area of nature therapy, I believe it is time for our governments and the medical community to step up and embrace it as a critical part of effective healthcare.

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The Birth of a new Blog

Hello fellow nature enthusiasts!

I have decided to take the Species of the Week feature and move it over to a separate Word Press site. I think it might attract a different sort of audience, and I wanted all the Species blog posts in one place.

That said, if you are a subscriber of my blog and would like to continue to get the species of the week posts, please subscribe to:

I will be taking the next little while to re-blog all of my previous species posts, and then will start adding new ones. Please bear with me during this transition!

Thanks everyone!

– Cathy

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