Seven animals we love to love at Christmas time
From the chirpy robin to Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, there are certain animals that can be found everywhere at Christmas time – on cards, as decorations, on the telly and under the tree.
Here are a few of the furry (and feathered) friends that we love to love at this time of year, why they’re synonymous with the festive season and how the clever creatures get one over winter and survive in the snow.
This friendly little bird is often the only animal visible in the garden in the winter months, with its bright red breast offering a welcome splash of colour. But why is the robin associated so heavily with Christmas? They first started to appear on our Christmas cards in the middle of the 19th century, when the first postal workers wore red jackets and were affectionately known as “robins.” The birds on these early cards were often portrayed carrying envelopes in their beaks, or wearing small satchels, out on their delivery round. Our feathered friend still pops up on cards and seasonal stamps to this day.
As the legend goes, Santa Claus would struggle to deliver gifts to children around the world on Christmas Eve without his trusty reindeer. The names of the original crew members are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen – based on the 1823 poem 'The Night before Christmas'. But another Christmas classic, 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer', led to the star of the song being added to the list too.
For centuries, the reindeer has been the sled-puller of choice for inhabitants of the snowy Polar Regions. The large mammal has to survive temperatures as low as -40°C! It does so thanks to the hollow hairs, tight against its body - trapping heat and covering the curly layer of fur underneath. And its large hooves spread its weight, allowing it to walk on snow. Reindeer can also travel further than any other land mammal: the North American herds might walk more than 5,000km on their annual migration to the Arctic – making them a fitting choice for the legendary, long-distance Christmas sleigh-pullers!
The squirrel is another star of our Christmas cards, and a master of overcoming the cold. The grey squirrel doesn’t hibernate - it can’t store enough energy to survive long periods without food. But the clever animal thinks ahead, burying nuts in the ground in secret stores during the autumn. The nuts are scattered around, rather than stored in a single spot, and are found by smell, rather than memory. Some of the nuts are never found again!
The squirrel will tuck up in its drey in very cold weather, often sharing it with other squirrels for warmth – just nipping out to retrieve nuts from its underground store cupboards. As it sleeps, the squirrel uses its tail as a blanket, curling it around its body. And squirrels also shiver, like us, to keep warm in winter.
The further north you go, the longer the fur on the fox. Of course, the fox that knows the most about the cold isn’t the one at the bottom of your garden, but the Arctic fox. Its fur is so deep and thick that is able to maintain a consistent body temperature despite freezing conditions. It also has thick fur on its paws, which helps it to walk on snow and ice. Its round, compact body means less surface area is exposed to the cold, and its nose, ears, and legs are short, to conserve heat.
The native people of the Andes in South America have used llamas as pack animals for centuries. In fact, these sturdy creatures are thought to be the first domesticated animal, first kept in Peru approximately four thousand years ago! Pack trains of llamas, which can be made up of several hundred animals, move goods over the tricky mountainous terrain. Saddled with heavy loads – up to 30% of their own bodyweight – they can cover up to 20 miles in a single day.
Llama wool is used to make clothes to keep their owners warm in the harsh Andean environment. Their fur has a hollow core, giving it a good weight-to-warmth ratio. The lightweight fleece makes the perfect jumper! And after providing us with clothes for generations, these animals are now appearing on Christmas jumpers themselves.
The Christmas owl, or 'chrowl' is big business at Christmas. The bird appears on thousands of festive products every year. One source suggests that owls on Christmas ornaments date back to the 19th century, with the bird's intelligence and wisdom symbolising a Christmas wish. Whatever the reason for their synonymy with Christmas, you can’t walk through a shop these days without coming face to face with an owl cushion or candle!
The species that knows a thing or two about cold weather is the snowy or Arctic owl, native to the snow-clad regions surrounding the North Pole. It’s a dab hand at camouflage with its white feathers helping it to blend in against the snow: this doesn't just help the owl to get near its prey, but also to avoid predators. Its plumage is also unusually thick, and spread all over the body (including its toes), which helps it stay warm when the air temperature drops to as low as −50 °C. Unlike most species of owl, which are nocturnal, the snowy owl hunts during the day too. This helps it survive the Arctic summer when the days are so long that there are few or no hours of darkness.
7. Polar bear
Finally, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the majestic polar bear. A survival expert, the polar bear has a thick layer of fat underneath its skin to protect it from the cold. Like the reindeer, it has two layers of fur: an outer layer that is thicker to protect the softer, denser inner layer. Although it looks white, the fur is actually transparent and the animal’s skin is black – the best colour for absorbing energy from the sun.
Their compact ears and small tail mean less heat loss and their large feet and claws help them run and walk on slippery ice. They also have an incredible sense of smell, which means they can locate food at very long distances, even when it’s buried under the snow! Polar bears don’t hibernate: unlike other Arctic animals they don’t eat more in the summer, as they actually need the ice in order to hunt.