What's your favourite animal?
“What’s your favourite animal?”. Both my favourite and my least favourite question ever. Spending a large portion of my time around and interacting with other animal nerds, it is one that I encounter on a frequent basis, typically divided into categories; what’s your favourite bird, mammal, insect, animal in a cold/hot/wet/dry climate. So many variations. So many different answers. It remains my most favourite question because it allows for debate forcing you to really think about why that animal is your favourite, what has it achieved to reach the top spot? And it remains my least favourite question because I still haven’t established a solid all-encompassing answer. My answer frequently changes depending on books I’ve recently read, wildlife encounters I’ve had, or particular plights a certain animal may be experiencing at that time.
My ecology teacher at college once asked me, the question in question and at the time my response was a barn owl. “Why, the barn owl?” “What’s it’s latin name?”, “What’s the breeding population in the U.K”, “How and what does it hunt?”. A bombardment of further questions that completely put me on the spot. At that time the barn owl was my favourite. Probably because I was working with them closely at a falconry practice, and they were a beautiful and iconic British species. That was all I had, and apparently it wasn’t a strong enough argument. It worked though, it made me go ahead and look into the natural history of the barn owl more closely. Tyto Alba, no one knows for sure but there are an estimated 4000 breeding pairs in the U.K, and they eat small mammals using a silent quartering technique based on hearing. That lecturer forever changed my perception on animals (thank you Mr.Meads), and forever changed the way I would answer the favourite animal question.
It got me thinking about how people answer their favourite creature conundrum. Do they have a system based on varying categories awarding points for different attributes? Now, that’s how I do it, I look at a series of factors and then try to determine what I think is the coolest.
Let’s tackle this one first because well, let’s face it, the aesthetic of an animal usually helps to get our attention. There is something about cutesy little bunny rabbits, and adorably chubby long tailed tits, or the big blue eyes of a fox cub that can’t help but make you stop and say “aww, look at that, it’s just so cute.” Granted, it’s not the most scientific case to put forward and no creature has mastered evolutionary sequences solely based purely on its ability to make us dooey eyed and full of baby talk (it might of helped). And it might mean that some of the not so cute creatures get over looked when they shouldn’t because they are also pretty awesome. But it helps people fall in love in the first place, potentially encouraging them to delve further into that animal’s natural history and champion the species from there on out.
How has an animal changed to deal with environments and situations to increase its chances of survival? Basically, what super power does it have? An amazing example of animal adaptations (and at one point my answer to my question) is the swift. These little birds, they weigh the same size as a small chocolate bar, are supreme aviators spending most of their lives on the wing. Some swifts don’t land for around 10 months, meaning that they must sleep on the wing, eat on the wing and even mate on the wing – all things that they have adapted to do. Their feet have shrunk in size because they are barely used, and they have strong long narrow wings helping them to reach top speeds and stay airborne. They even have movable bristles just in front of their deep-set eyes which act like sunglasses. All animals adapt; from the mountain hare that changes coat colour according to weather conditions to the barn owl that has wings made specifically for silent flight. Each adaptation could be a deciding factor for the top spot, and all deserve their own individual blog posts.
Cognition and Emotional Intelligence
These two definitely deserve their own blog posts because there is so much to cram in. Each create their own individual talking points, but they are a necessary consideration when choosing your ultimate animal. Even if it doesn’t help you to decide, it’s pretty cool to know that crows recognise faces, otters have the ability to use tools, and badgers are thought to grieve over their dead. Any animal that can problem solve, and that’s most of them by the way, in my opinion is intelligent. Any animal that can communicate, and again – that’s most of them, is intelligent. The red fox has around 28 different vocal calls, that’s 28 noises they now how too make and decipher within context. So, the next time you get irritated by the vixen at the end of your drive screaming in the dead of night, just remember that she’s using her intelligence to communicate not to intentionally annoy you (i promise). A bit of a jump but let’s look at the cetacean group, dolphins and whales rank high on the list of clever beasts and rightly so. They not only can communicate through extensive calls and show signs of grieve but they are also capable of cultural transmission. Cultural transmission simply means that they learn through social interactions; the young will learn from elders through teaching and play. And it’s not just cetaceans that learn through this behavioural technique, lots of other animals do as well, which just means narrowing down your favourite just got even harder.
The first time I saw a sea eagle I was pretty much rooted to the spot. To see such an expansive mass of wings, talon and beak gliding towards you with such ease is a breath-taking moment that commands full attention. For the ten minutes it spent flying over the loch I couldn’t take my eyes off it, it was everything I imagined and more. The way an animal makes you feel when you encounter it is sometimes enough to push it straight into the top ten. It might be the size of the beast that implies majesty, to be in the presence of a basking shark or an orca as it slices the sea is certainly a majestic sight. The red stag, antlers held high amidst a Scottish glen – definitely majestic. Birds of prey on the wing, effortlessly riding thermals and mastering the wind are massively majestic for me. A feeling alone is capable of answering your question perhaps?
Each animal is vulnerable in a way, whether it is delicate like a butterfly or as hardy as the mountain hare, they all face struggles and unfortunately most of those struggles are down to the human hand. It might be indirectly such as a habitat destruction, human presence interfering with an animal’s normal behaviour or the big one now – plastic pollution through litter and waste. It is also much more direct than that, plenty of animals are vulnerable because they are persecuted by humans for lots of varying reasons. The fox and the badger are both victims of persecution, especially now during the times of bovine TB and the badger cull. Corvids, ravens and even birds of prey face the shotgun of farmers and gamekeepers across the country. Whereas the humble hedgehog is a victim of indirect human interference through the building and development of new houses, increased use of pesticides and road deaths. All responsible for the massive decline of the creature. Another prime example of a vulnerable animal is the Scottish wildcat, there are thought to be just 200 left in the wild now. Again, this is mainly down to the actions of humans; deforestation has removed the habitat the wild cat needs to survive. Combine that with interbreeding with feral and domestic cats that belong to humans and it means that hybrids rule in the Scottish highlands not the wildcat! So, will your answer be swayed by some animals suffering at the hands of humans? Is it your favourite creature because you feel it needs your voice?
Have you come to a conclusion yet? Did you choose your favourite animal based on one, some or all of these factors? Or are you still deciding. I am. My current contenders are still the swift due to its amazing adaptations, the pine marten because of it’s miraculous recovery from the brink of extinction and the sea eagle that fixed me to the spot in awe.
The more I learn about animals the harder it is to decide, and the examples mentioned here are only animals in or around the U.K. when you throw this question out on a global scale it becomes super difficult to answer. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer this fully but I will always enjoy trying to.