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Bellingham ecologist crawls into 'Animal Homes' for PBS series

Chris Morgan held up his right thumb to show where he had allowed a leaf-cutter ant to bite him.

The Bellingham ecologist was on a location shoot in the jungles of Costa Rica — the ant mecca of the world, he said — for a Nature program about the dens, burrows, nests and colonies that are the homes of critters and their young. Morgan put an ant on his thumb because he wanted to know whether its jaws were powerful enough to bite through a callous.

The jaws of a leaf-cutter ant are so muscular that they make up 25 percent of its body weight, which meant that Morgan’s thumb bled as he stood near the ant’s colony.

“They dig right in and it’s like razor blades. They’ve got this shearing motion and it cut a line right down the middle of my thumb, just like it would with a leaf,” Morgan said one recent morning over coffee at Avenue Bread on Railroad Avenue.

It was the one injury he got while working on the three-part series called “Nature’s Guide to Animal Homes,” which broadcasts on three consecutive Wednesday nights starting April 8 on PBS.

“It’s pure natural history and intrigue. It’s an intense look at a light topic. It’s a very enjoyable, sometimes humorous film. People will watch it and come away with a much better appreciation for the time and energy and focus that it takes a wild animal to make a home,” said Morgan, who grew up in Southbourne, Dorset, on Britain’s south coast, before moving to Washington state in 1997.

Morgan has narrated 13 films for Nature.

In “Animal Homes,” he served as the host and real estate guide of sorts for an up-close look at shelters made by birds, animals, fish and insects in the United States and other parts of the world. It’s a journey meant to invoke a sense of wonder in viewers and the realization of a shared bond.

“As an ecologist, I’m fascinated by why these animals build their homes in these places, and how and why. The show touches on all those. It’s really amazing. What unfolds are kind of little soap operas, just like those that evolve around our own homes,” said the 46-year-old conservationist best known in Whatcom County for his efforts to protect bears and the wild places they need.

The show’s viewers get an intimate look at animals and their homes thanks to a combination of CGI, animation, CT scans and a variety of cameras, including tiny HD ones.

The first episode airing on Wednesday, April 8, focuses on birds and their nests.

“From nature’s most mundane materials, birds weave wonders,” Morgan said during the voice-over in the opener. “Delicate circles of grass and twigs. Elaborately woven baskets of vines. Imposing castles of wood and mud. These are works of art so skillful, so beautiful, it’s hard to believe they were fashioned by beaks instead of hands.”

“Animal Homes” takes viewers from a nest collection at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History to a female Anna’s hummingbird building a tiny nest — using materials that include silk from a spider’s web — to protect two eggs small as baked beans.

From there, the segment travels to Connecticut for ospreys, which weigh 3 to 4 pounds, building a nest that can weigh 400 pounds or more. Then it’s off to Uruguay, where red ovenbirds use mud to build adobe nests, then Australia, where brush turkeys make one that’s 13 feet across and 4 feet high, using their big feet to kick leaves, sticks and whatever else on the forest floor to form what’s essentially a big compost pile, which will give off heat needed to incubate their eggs.

This episode and others in the series show wildlife as architects, weavers, builders and stonemasons creating havens for their young. Sometimes, they are squatters of sorts, like cowbirds, which lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, hoping those bird will raise their young.

Again and again, the series and Morgan point out similarities between what animals need and what people need.

“We can all relate to the nest because we climb into one every night,” he said during an interview.

Morgan is full of wonder as he talks about the creatures in “Animal Homes.”

Leaf-cutter ants, for example, live in giant underground colonies that they’ve excavated by moving as much as 40 tons of earth, one mouthful at a time. The queen has her own chambers.

“She lays 30,000 eggs per day, per day!” he said, adding the queen will lay 150 million eggs over the 10 years of her life.

The new ants will all be female, except for the few males needed to mate with the queen.

In the jungle, the ants use their powerful jaws to cut pieces of leaves that they take to their colonies underground.

They don’t eat the leaves, Morgan said. They use them to create a garden that a fungus grows on and then the ants eat the fungus.

“Amazing. So they were the world’s first farmers, doing it about 50 million years before we were,” Morgan said.

He also admired the work of beavers, which build dams across rivers and improve life for other wild things.

“They’re improving the environment there, creating an ecosystem for 80 percent of the species found in the area,” he said. “People are starting to realize these guys aren’t destroying habitat.”

For Morgan, a segment in the second episode fulfilled a dream. That was when he got to crawl into a black bear den while on a winter shoot in Maryland with other wildlife biologists.

The bear population there is rebounding after being nearly wiped out, he said. The biologists tranquilized the female bear, who was hibernating, and pulled her out of the cave. Morgan crawled in and saw four cubs, about 4 weeks old, looking back at him in the light of his flashlight.

He pulled them out. Their health was checked. While their mother was being weighed and checked, Morgan put the cubs inside his jacket to keep them warm. At one point, viewers can see three of the cubs’ heads sticking out of his jacket.

“I think it’s one of the scenes in the whole series that’s going to steal people’s hearts. I’m a bit biased, but it is the cutest thing,” he said, laughing.

For Morgan, bringing people in close and telling a good story through shows such as “Animal Homes” is what it takes to protect wild animals and their wild places.

“Wildlife conservation starts with wildlife wonder. People need to be inspired, intrigued by and interested in (wildlife),” he said. “And the the more they’re inspired, intrigued and interested, the more they’re likely to take steps to keep these critters around.”

WATCH THE SERIES

“Nature’s Guide to Animal Homes,” will air at 8 p.m. on PBS (KCTS Channel 9) over three consecutive Wednesdays.

Run dates and episodes are:

• April 8, “The Nest.” How birds build their nests and the materials they use as they construct a home that’s safe for their young.

• April 15, “Location, Location, Location.” Beavers, tortoises and woodrats show why finding a good base is necessary for raising their families, and demonstrate their skills as architects.

• April 22, “Animal Cities.” Puffins congregating in large colonies and spiders working together to bring down much larger prey show the benefits of communal living.

After each broadcast, the episodes can be streamed online at pbs.org/nature.

PREVIEW OF EPISODE 1

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