10 Members of Bob Ross's Happy Little Menagerie

Famed TV painter and personality Bob Ross is known the world over for being one of history's sweetest, gentlest souls, and thankfully, that attitude extended well beyond his 18-by-24-inch canvasses. Ross was an ardent animal lover, a passion which often made its way onto The Joy of Painting. His crew of animal companions was a big hit among the fans, and showcased Ross's particular tastes in the creatures of the world. In lieu of cats, dogs, or guinea pigs, Ross took a liking to the very creatures you might expect to see in his happy little landscapes. Our list contains as many of those animals as we could find, and could also serve as lyrics to a Ross-themed revamp of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

Many of the clips below are full episodes and you'll have to skim through a lot of them to get to the critters—or just watch the entire thing. Let's face it: You were probably going to anyway.

1. PEAPOD THE POCKET SQUIRREL

No single animal got more airtime on The Joy of Painting than Peapod—a tiny little squirrel that, according to Ross, liked to sit in his pocket. While viewers never got a glimpse of that particular bonding experience, we did get to see the painter feed his rodent friend with a bottle (“Aren’t they the most precious characters you’ve ever seen?”), and hold him in the palm of his hand while the furry friend slumbered away (“I like to just watch him sleep”). The “peekaboo squirrel” made a handful of appearances on the show, and was so beloved, he even inspired a successor (see #2).

2. PEAPOD JR.

While the original Peapod might’ve been a special rodent, he was part of a long tradition of Ross being absolutely nuts for squirrels. He often owned several at a time, caring for them in the early stages of life before releasing them out into his backyard. A rotating scurry of squirrels did guest spots on the series, and were a favorite among fans.

3. HOOT THE OWL

Ross’s love of birds was second only to squirrels. One of the avians who got airtime was Hoot the Owl, who appeared on The Joy of Painting when he was only a few weeks old. “He’s nothing but down,” Ross says in the clip above. “As I mentioned earlier, him and I both have the same hairdresser. We’ve both got the fuzz top up here.”

The cute “little devil” (Ross referred to animals almost exclusively as little “rascals” or “devils”), also appeared later on as a full grown bird. Ross had several friends who cared for rescues, including Diana Schaffer (or as he called her, the “bird lady”). On a visit to her home, Ross spent time with sparrows, a hawk, a wild turkey, a baby groundhog, and even whispered some of his sweet nothings to a blind robin, which you can see above.

As for Hoot, Ross reflected: “Old Hoot though, he's grown. By the time you see this show, he will have been turned loose and he’ll be long gone. By the time you see this he’ll probably have a little condo in Miami and house payments, a BMW in the driveway … he’ll be like the rest of us. All trapped with responsibilities. He may even have children of his own.”

4. A PAIR OF BABY ROBINS

When these fine feathered friends appeared on the show, Ross named them Richard and Cathy after a couple of the show's camera people. The hungry “little rascals” earned their names because of their similarities to their human counterparts: Richard’s hair was thinning and Cathy was chatty.

5. CHIMNEY SWIFTS

In the clip above, four of these cute "little devils” hang onto Ross’s shirt like we all would if given the opportunity.

6. LITTLE BIT, THE SHERMAN’S FOX SQUIRREL

What’s better than a squirrel? A giant squirrel of course. On one episode, Ross’s friend Cindy introduced him to a Sherman’s fox squirrel named Little Bit, and the rodent lover nearly lost his mind.

7. A GREAT HORNED OWL

Cindy also gave Ross the opportunity to spend some time with a great horned owl, who inspired this lovely reflection: “I like animals so much. I’m tellin' you, I could just about make a career out of taking care of these little rascals. They’re so beautiful. Isn’t that something?”

8. A SANDHILL CRANE

Another one of Cindy’s creatures was a rescue crane that was born with a twisted neck—a possible result of an abnormality that occurred in the egg. In addition to that encounter, there’s more footage of Ross with the Sherman’s fox squirrel.

9. DEER

While visiting another friend with rescue animals named Carmen Shaw, Ross met a pair of deer (“I love these little characters, I want to take them all home with me”) and a baby raccoon. In another episode, he cradled a baby deer and fawned over the fawn in those signature dulcet tones and all was right with the world. (He mentioned on both occasions that he couldn't imagine shooting Bambi.)

10. A BABY RACCOON

In a baby raccoon appearance, Ross fed one of the primarily nocturnal beasts with a bottle and said maybe his most disparaging animal comment ever, about how the mammals are sweet as babies, but grow up to be "pretty tough little characters." He also references burping the little guy, which tragically wasn't captured for posterity on film.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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16 Playful Facts About Otters
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These adorable aquatic mammals are clever, chatty, and oddly aromatic.

1. THERE ARE 13 SPECIES OF OTTERS, AND JUST ABOUT ALL OF THEM ARE DECREASING.

Only one otter species seems to be thriving, and that's the North American River Otter. The other 12 otter species were recently identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as having decreasing populations, and five otter species are already on the endangered list. Among the endangered are the sea otters along the California coast, which are threatened by "environmental pollutants and disease agents." Others, like the marine otters of South America, have had their numbers reduced because of poaching, as well as environmental concerns.

2. ZOROASTRIANS THOUGHT THE OTTERS TO BE NEARLY SACRED CREATURES.

This ancient monotheistic religion considered otters to be the dogs of the river or sea and had strict rules forbidding the killing of otters. It was thought that otters helped keep water purified by eating already dead creatures that might contaminate the water source if they were allowed rot. They would also hold ceremonies for otters found dead in the wild.

3. OTTERS HAVE VERY DISTINCTIVE POOP, AND THAT SCAT HAS ITS OWN NAME.

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Otters use their dung—known as spraint—to mark territory and communicate with other otters. The mammals like to keep things organized within their communities and will designate certain areas to be used as latrines. Spraint scents can vary, but often are (relatively) pleasant—one expert described them as not "dissimilar to jasmine tea." Spraint composition is unique to each otter, and the creatures can identify each other by the smells. Scientists suspect otters may even be able to determine the sex, age, and reproductive status of the spraint dropper just from a quick whiff. And since otters have superb metabolisms and must eat up to 15 percent of their body weight each day, there's a lot of spraint to go around.

4. OTTER MOMS ARE TOTALLY GAME FOR ADOPTION.

In 2001, a female otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gave birth to a stillborn pup on the same day a stranded pup was discovered in the wild nearby. The aquarium staff had previously tried raising pups themselves but found that hand-raised otters became too attached to humans to be released back into the wild. So instead, they dropped the pup in with the female otter, and she immediately went into mom mode. The aquarium has since devised a system of hand-rearing pups for the first 6-8 weeks—mostly for bottle feeding purposes—before handing the pups off to female otters for raising. At six months, the pups are released back into the wild with generally strong results.

5. THEY HAVE THE THICKEST FUR OF ANY MAMMAL IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM.

Otters can have up to one million hairs per square inch. There are two layers of fur—an undercoat and then longer hairs that we can see. The layers manage to trap air next to the otter's skin, which keeps the otters dry and warm and also helps with buoyancy. Otter pups have so much air trapped in there, they actually can’t dive under water, even if they want to.

6. AN OTTER IS SOMETIMES ONLY AS GOOD AS HIS TOOLS.

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Otters love to eat shelled animals, like clams, but they aren't equipped with the strength to open their food without some help. Therefore, they are big on tools and will often use rocks to help crack into dinner. While they hunt for food underwater, they’ll often store a rock in the skin under their arms for later use.

7. OTTERS ARE POPULAR IN NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE, BUT FOR VARYING REASONS.

Some tribes consider the otter to be a lucky animal and a symbol of "loyalty and honesty." But some, particularly in present-day Canada and Alaska, viewed the river otter "with awe and dread" and associated the creatures with the undead and drowning. They forbid eating the creatures and were offended when colonial Europeans began hunting the river otters and selling their furs.

8. GIANT OTTERS ARE SUPER CHATTY.

In 2014, a study of giant otters found that the river-dwellers have 22 distinct noises they make for different situations. On top of that, pups have 11 of their own calls that they intersperse with "infant babbling." Among the most notable calls: a "hum graduation" used to tell otters to change directions and a "Hah!" shout when a threat is nearby.

9. OTTERS AND HUMANS CAN COLLABORATE.

In Bangladesh, otters help fisherman maximize their haul. For centuries, fisherman have been training otters to act as herders and chase large schools of fish into the nets.

10. DRONES MAY HELP SCIENTISTS BETTER STUDY OTTERS IN THE WILD.

Keeping an eye on otters in the wild is a tricky task. In the past, observers have usually set up telescopes on shore to try and monitor otters at sea while on land. Otters won't act naturally with humans nearby, and using a telescope on a boat can get tricky in the rollicking ocean. But now, scientists are using unmanned drones with cameras to get an aerial look at otters in their element, making it easier to monitor the creatures as they dive for food and go about their day.

11. SEE A GROUP OF OTTERS? THAT'S A ROMP. OR A BEVY.

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Or a family or a raft. Otter groups go by a few different monikers, all of which are fairly unique to that crew. Generally, a group of otters on land will go by a romp, while a group hanging in the water is called a raft.

12. OTTERS ARE BIG ON PLAY TIME, AND MAKING SLIDES IS AMONG THEIR FAVORITE GAMES.

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Otter families are usually limited to pups and their mothers, and that duo will spend most of their time either feeding or sleeping. In the downtime, though, otters love to play and will often build themselves slides along the banks of rivers.

13. CALIFORNIA SEA OTTERS DIVIDE THEMSELVES IN DIET GUILDS.

Once thought to be gone from the area completely, southern sea otters—known as California sea otters—have been making a comeback in recent years. But with their numbers hovering around just a few thousand, researchers have kept a close eye on the population and their studies have revealed an interesting social structure. The otters, which need to consume 25 percent to 35 percent of their body weight every day in order to maintain their blubber stores and keep themselves warm in the cool waters, are divided into three "dietary guilds": Deep-diving otters that dine on abalone, urchins, and Dungeness crab; medium divers who subsist on clams, worms, and smaller shellfish; and those that stay in shallower waters, feeding on black snails.

14. THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO SET FOOT IN ALASKA WAS ALSO THE FIRST TO DESCRIBE SEA OTTERS.

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Georg Wilhelm Steller was the first to scientifically describe numerous new animals on the 1741 explorative voyage from Russia. Aboard the St. Peter, Steller and other 18th-century explorers crash-landed on mainland Alaska after getting separated from its sister ship. Steller was the first European to set foot on the icy land. Over the course of a rough Alaskan winter, he meticulously documented many species, and while some have since gone extinct (like a sea-cow he described that was hunted into extinction), the adorable otter was among his initial discoveries.

15. BABY OTTERS ARE BUOYANT, BUT THEY CAN'T SWIM ON THEIR OWN.

A mother will often wrap the babies in kelp to keep them in one place while she hunts. Or, she might rely on human resources and otter ingenuity to find a makeshift “playpen” for her pup.

16. THEIR BEHAVIOR ISN'T ALWAYS ADORABLE.

Like many animals, otters sometimes behave in ways that aren't exactly within the bounds of what humans would consider morally acceptable. Even if you find them otherwise adorable, otters' mating habits will no doubt make your stomach turn.

Male otters' mating techniques are violent. They bite their female partner's face during copulation to keep her from slipping away, leaving her with substantial facial wounds. It's not uncommon for female otters to die as a result of these aggressive encounters, either through drowning or from their wounds becoming infected. Male otters have also been known to violently copulate with other species—most notably, baby seals [PDF]. The behavior doesn't stop when the seals die from the trauma. Otters have been known to guard and have sex with the bodies of their victims for up to seven days after they've died.

Scientists hypothesize that these seemingly counterproductive mating habits might be the result of a population imbalance. In California's Monterey Bay, where scientists observed otters trying to copulate with the week-old bodies of dead baby seals, there are far more male otters than females. Facing a lack of female partners, male otters may be engaging in what researchers call "misdirected sexual activity." The area in the bay where the scientists observed the most otter-on-seal mating sessions was also where there was a high population of transient male otters, ones that, unlike more dominant males, don't have an established territory filled with potential mates. In the absence of females of their own kind, then, they turned their typical sexual responses toward the seals. Nature, unfortunately, isn't always pretty.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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