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10 Animals that live in awkward dwellings

10 Animals that live in awkward dwellings

The biggest concern for any house hunter is security; where you live must be safe from predators. Instead of locks, keys, or burglar alarms, some animals gain security from living in the strangest, most inaccessible places

Without the gadgets and technology that humans have, animals have to come up with creative ways to keep their homes safe. From building inaccessible nests to utilising air bubbles underwater, here are ten animals who live in awkward dwellings to ensure their safety. 

1. Designed to save chicks from disaster

10 Animals that live in awkward dwellings - A kittiwake guarding its young in a nest on a rock face in the UKCredit: Nigel Harris

How do kittiwakes, which nest in huge colonies on sea cliffs, prevent their chicks from falling? The answer lies in the design and location of the nest: a neat little construction of compacted mud, grass, and seaweed. This nest is attached to a tiny ledge or bracket that juts out from an otherwise sheer cliff face in Britain and other northern countries.

The nest features a nest cup deeper than that of any other seabird, ensuring that eggs don't accidentally roll out and chicks can't easily climb out. In any case, kittiwake offspring tend to stay quite still in the nest by nature.

2. No way in for the oropendola’s enemies

When making her nest, the female oropendola of Central and South America takes no chances. While the male bird spends his days singing and performing to attract other females, she works at making her nest as inaccessible as possible to predators. She tears strips of leaves from banana trees and weaves them so tightly that the nest is waterproof.

"The nest is bound to a branch so thin that no bears, monkeys, or snakes would risk testing their weight on it"

The top of the nest is bound to a branch so thin that no spectacled bears, monkeys, or snakes would risk testing their weight on it. The nest’s long, narrow neck dangles down for as much as two metres, then bulges out into a bulb-shaped, padded nest chamber. This neck is much too tight a squeeze for aerial hunters such as hawks.

3. Nesting eagle looks down on its neighbours

10 Animals that live in awkward dwellings - Bald eagle at Los Angeles nestCredit: KGrif

The golden eagle's eyrie seems vulnerable to predators and the elements. Scorning the protection of overhangs or vegetation, eagles build conspicuous, messy-looking nests, either on rocky outcrops or treetops.

A newly built eyrie on a stony ledge may be no more than a few sturdy sticks and branches arranged into a ring. Golden eagle pairs return year after year to the same spot and over time, the eyrie may build into a huge basket, up to five metres deep. The interior is lined with grass, ferns, and greenery. Yet, there is room for only one chick. So, though golden eagles lay two eggs, the older chick usually kills the younger in order to rid itself of competition for food.

4. The underwater spider’s bubble diving bell

Many spiders are to be found near water, but only the European water spider lives, hunts, and breeds underwater. Like human divers, it takes its own air supply down by building a diving bell.

The female water spider weaves an underwater silken sheet, which she anchors to water plants. Swimming to the surface, she uses her rear abdomen and hind legs to capture a bubble of air and drags it underwater, trapping it beneath her sheet, which arches to form a bell. She makes this trip several times until she has enough air. Safe inside her bell, she lies in wait for passing prey.

5. Hornbill father imprisons his mate in mud

10 Animals that live in awkward dwellings - Male Hornbill feeding the female at the nest in the hollow of a large tree trunkCredit: Tanes Ngamsom

The female hornbill is content to be walled up in jail as she incubates her eggs. After finding a suitable nest hole in a tree, she settles on her eggs, while the male brings a mixture of mud and saliva to the nest site. The two of them use this to build a wall in front of the hole, the mud hardening as it dries, cementing the female inside. By the time they have finished building, the only opening left is a narrow slit in the mud wall.

"The female hornbill stays safe from predators while the male feeds fruit and insects to her through the slit"

The female hornbill stays safe from predators while the male feeds fruit and insects to her through the slit. When the chicks are half-grown, the female breaks out of her prison. She and her partner seal the nest again, leaving a slit through which the parents feed the chicks.

6. How polar bears keep their cubs warm

10 Animals that live in awkward dwellings - Polar bear cub coming out its denCredit: AndreAnita

Lacking any ready-made shelter in the snowdrifts, the female polar bear constructs her own. Using her massive paws, she scrapes an almost two-metre tunnel into a bank of dry, compacted snow to protect herself and her cubs from the Arctic chill. Alternatively, she might allow herself to get snowed in, later enlarging the hole that forms around her body. At the end of this tunnel, she digs out a vaulted chamber with a raised platform.

Outside, the temperature can be as low as –30˚C. Inside, the den is warmed by the polar bear’s body heat and can be as much as 21˚C higher. She may add a ventilation shaft in the roof, though such holes could be made accidentally when the polar bear scrapes ice from the surface.

7. Prickly situation for flicker birds

A cactus’s needle-sharp spines are enough to deter most predators, making the deserts of southwestern USA and Mexico a prime location for gilded flicker birds who nest only among the spiky ribs of the giant saguaro cactus. In the rainy season, the cactus absorbs so much water that it sometimes swells to twice its original size. Its flesh becomes soft and spongy, so the flickers can easily peck a hole. Sap oozes from the damaged spot and hardens, forming a smooth nest floor for the birds’ eggs and chicks.

After one nesting season, the nest has become too full of parasites, feathers, and food scraps for the flickers. New tenants, such as the tiny elf owl, soon take up residence.

8. At home on the water in more ways than one

In North America, pairs of Clark’s grebes hitch their nests to weeds, rushes, and other vegetation. No land predators can cross the water to reach the middle of a lake, so many water birds lay their eggs on floating nests like these.

The grebes’ nest is a sturdy piece of architecture made from sticks, mud, reeds, and weeds. The platform above the surface is firmly lashed to an underwater pyramid that may be as much as three times broader than the nest itself. Working together to keep their nest in good condition, the grebes plug leaks, plaster down stray strands and tuck fresh weed around the edges.

9. Weatherproof bunkers on the clifftop

10 Animals that live in awkward dwellings - Puffin peering out of a burrowCredit: Henfaes

Buffeted by sea winds, clifftops may appear undesirable places for puffins to raise a family. And so, the birds find shelter underground, safe from land-based predators such as foxes and stoats.

In the Northern Hemisphere, when a puffin returns from sea to nest in May and June, it takes over abandoned rabbit holes or Manx shearwater burrows. If there are no ready-made tunnels, the puffin excavates its own weatherproof bunker, scratching away with its webbed feet. The tunnel may be up to a metre long, with several exit holes. Sometimes, the nest at the end is lined with grass and feathers.

10. The burrowing frog’s watertight suit

Australia’s central desert, where rain may not fall for years, would seem hardly the best place for a moist-skinned frog. But the burrowing frog manages to make a home in this inhospitable landscape by burying itself in a skintight wet suit.

When the last pools of water dry to small puddles, the frog goes to bed. It wriggles backwards into a muddy pool, burying itself in the slime. The frog burrows until it has dug down to about 30cm. It excavates a hole about twice its own size, using its feet to tamp down the soil along the walls. Then, it goes to sleep.

"Sensing moisture trickling down the sand, the frog wakes up, breaks out of the skin sack, and clambers up to the surface"

After two weeks, the top layers of the frog’s skin loosen and mesh together to form an all-over body suit that is completely watertight. The frog, well protected against drying out, stays there until the rains come. Sensing moisture trickling down the sand, it wakes up, breaks out of the skin sack, and clambers up to the surface.

Banner credit: DouglasOlivares

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