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Animal Homes

Chris Morgan studies the blueprints of nature’s homes

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bellingham ecologist Chris Morgan wants us to know that each animal home is magic in its own way. After studying DIY homes constructed by a wide array of wildlife, from hummingbirds to black bears, leafcutter ants to beavers, Morgan shares in Animal Homes, a three-part series on PBS’ Nature, his wonder for these treasures found among the wilds of the world and sometimes, in our own backyards.

Hosted by Morgan, Animal Homes begins with the first visually stunning and thought-provoking program airing Wed., April 8—”The Nest.” Through CGI, Animation Blueprint, and CT scans, the series offers windows into the construction and design of nests, dens and dams—places where animals hunker down for a good night’s sleep and also raise families. Notes Morgan, “This is not a heavy conservation film but instead, shows the pure magic of nature. I love it for that.”

In “The Nest” we watch a tiny hummingbird create, with the mere use of her even tinier beak, a structural masterpiece of interwoven spider’s silk and plant fibers; mosses, lichens and leaves. An intricate work of fine art, here she will lay pebble-sized eggs, hatch and raise her chicks. In this installment, Morgan tries his hand at building a nest with the added benefit of, well, hands and opposable thumbs. It proved to be no easy task.

“I put on my bird-brain when considering how to build a nest and it opened my eyes in so many ways. It gave me an even deeper appreciation for the wild and our wildlife neighbors. I am grateful for the opportunity to share this magic with the world,” Morgan said. He would like children to watch the series so they will see birds and mammals—and their secret lives—in a different way. “It will be a secret window into the wild for kids,” added Morgan, a father himself.

During the filming of the beaver segment in Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, Morgan became most impressed with this animal’s architectural, hydro-engineering and design skills. When it comes to beaver dams, “There is so much more than meets the eye!” Morgan said.

The inside of a beaver dam is like a lodge, housing several branches of the family tree with rooms constructed for specific purposes. “A beaver lodge, this really is a permanent home with all the conveniences and multiple generations. There is something cozy about the place. How would you not want to be a beaver?” Morgan asked.

The dam itself also serves as an anti-predation device for the beaver family, a stronghold, and benefits 80 percent of nearby animal species by creating wetlands, expanding stream-flow seasons and filtering water, while at the same time increasing wildlife and fish habitat.

Their strong legs, webbed feet (with heavy claws on the front two) and long, sharp incisors for gnawing, make beavers the perfect biological design for the job of dam building. Explains Morgan, “They are also tuned into the sound of running water. They will not ignore it! They are constantly on the move making adjustments and they must mend.” “Busy as a beaver” truly is a literal idiom, after all.

Animal Homes Program 2: “Location, Location, Location” airs Wed., April 15, showing us how just the right place is determined for each animal’s unique home. With animals as designers and engineers, through the use of animated blueprints and tiny cameras, we will peer into animal creativity and innovation, into animal consciousness and psyche.

Morgan found it surprising that there is almost a soap-opera-like saga going on behind many of the animal homes. He tells a fish story from the Mediterranean wherein males of the species prepare the nest and then employ a satellite male to attract females for the nest builder, the head of household. In return, the satellite male will be allowed to fertilize a small portion of the eggs. Sneaky males (an actual term) may also come in when the nest is unattended, fertilizing some of the eggs. Watch Animal Homes and you will hear stories of exploitation, backstabbing and deceit.

In Program 3: “Animal Cities,” airing April 22, we will learn about the necessity and security of animal colonies and communal living. Morgan was absolutely fascinated by Costa Rica’s leafcutter ants’ immense colonies, with cities as large as an acre. Morgan’s enthusiasm for ants began at a very young age (about 3 years old) when he kept ants as pets and fostered ant farms from where he grew up in Southborne, Dorset, on Britain’s south coast.

“Leafcutter ants are the smallest of creatures and the biggest of organisms, often with 10 million ants acting as one organism!” exclaimed Morgan. Their jaws comprise 25 percent of leafcutter ants’ body weight, which are used to cut and carry portions of leaves for the colony. The leaves are not eaten but used instead to farm a fungus the ants use as food.

~~~

In 1997, Morgan made his own home in Bellingham after receiving his master’s degree in Advanced Ecology from the University of Durham, UK. He quickly fell in love with the place and the people, and Bellingham’s close proximity to coniferous forests and wildlife. Added Morgan, “The weather doesn’t get to me. I’m British, so I find it dry here.”

Morgan co-founded Wildlife Media, a small nonprofit that is producing their first project BEARTREK to be completed this year. BEARTREK focuses on the world’s wild places through the eyes of bears, and triggered his relationship with PBS that has since given birth to Morgan’s involvement with Animal Homes and other projects.

Morgan talks up the PBS Nature team, “We’re lucky to have them, they are amazing people.” He works frequently with the executive producer for Nature, Fred Kaufman, and worked closely on each of the Animal Homes programs with filmmaker Ann Johnson Prum. Of cinematographer Mark Carroll, Morgan says nobody works harder. “He has an eye for animal behavior and it’s not easy. There is a lot of grueling work,” Morgan said.

The most enchanting scene in the series, Morgan believes, was when he crawled into a bear’s den, maneuvered around a corner and looked down onto four cubs huddled together for warmth. Dens vary between bears, from fallen logs to caves or collections of boulders. One bear, Morgan described, crawled under a log, remaining only partially concealed for the winter. “What works for one bear does not work for another,” Morgan said.

Animal Homes is more than a series about nests and dens; it is about the abilities and skills of animals. There is a great story going on all around us and so much more than meets the eye. With our animal neighbors, Morgan explains, “We have a close relationship. It’s all about the next generation. It is endearing and fascinating. And humans also curl up in a nest every night!”

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