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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3 Responses to Groundhogs are my 14th favourite animal

  1. marygother says:

    We live on 300 acres of scrub bush ( I.e. logged over several times in the past century and a half) in Eastern Ontario, land that was a playground for our daughters and now for our granddaughter. Groundhogs come somewhat below 14 for me, however, since one of them tried to undermine the kitchen porch a few years ago.
    I like your blog and how you are handling your kids.

  2. Pingback: How much wood COULD a woodchuck chuck? | Featured Species

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