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February 22, 2019

Animals, too, like elaborate houses

Yours truly at work
Yours truly at work

For the last four months, I have been up early every morning to join workers who are helping me to put up my retirement house somewhere at Kona Baridi. I have been involved in the construction of the house since it began, absenting myself only when bush duty calls. I have soiled my clothes, broken my fingers with heavy hammers while breaking or shaping stones. I tried using gloves, but the feeling is not the same as when you hold the hammer with your hands and curve a building stone into the needed shape.

I am not an expert in building construction. But the feeling of the actual participation in building your own home, is one special feeling that takes away the expected fatigue and wear. It is very simple to give out the money to buy construction materials and let the experts do the construction. And it is also easy to visit the construction site and find a comfortable seat and watch the house go up. That will not give you the solid satisfaction that you have built your home. It is natural to have this feeling of elation and pride when a man, or indeed a woman, participates in actual building of a home. If you can’t carry a building stone and place it on the concrete for the builder to put together, you can at the least water the concrete for curing purpose. Any small thing you do at the construction site will remain in your conscious, and it is a good feeling. Just like in the bush.

Within its territorial confines, an animal will often though not invariably, make for itself a home. Sometimes this will simply be a matter of selecting a suitably quiet spot such as a bush or a cave. Often however, animals will fashion a dwelling for themselves using locally found materials or even generating components themselves from their bodies. These building skills are elaborate and often involve the use of 'natural' tools. The home building is also found in primitive marine organisms such as molluscs, crustaceans, and other reptiles and fishes.

Both the males and females can be home makers. The norm among fish, such as the intensely territorial stickleback fish, is for the male to build the nest. It digs out a shallow depression and in this excavation, constructs a nest consisting of scraps of vegetation, which the fish glues together with a sticky ‘cement’ secretion from its body. The layout of the nest shows the fish’ concern for functional design. It consists of a tunnel lined with plant stems and blades of grass aligned, such that the fanning of the fins of the fish will not overly disturb the eggs or move them from the nest. With the blades of grass, the fish sort of creates a carpet of grass that allows ventilation spaces below the eggs, so that aerating current produced by the male’s fanning can flow past the eggs on all sides. This method maintains a proper internal environment for maximum reproductive success.

Just like we think about security during construction of our houses, animals too are highly appreciative of such details. The northern masked weaver, which is very common in Kenya, has found a shortcut in minding the security part when building their homes. It is common for the males to build the skeleton part of the nest. During construction, the male will look for strong stems of grass and twigs to set the nest foundation. He will have to choose the best site which offers the best protection from extreme weather conditions, aerial predation by the eagles, slithery enemies like snakes, or unnecessary disturbances from moving things. The female’s part of the construction is to line up the nest with fine materials at the chamber where the eggs will be laid. The male has found a shortcut to beat all this by building the nests close to human settlements. At the sweet waters tented camp in Nanyuki, the weavers have built their nests on television antennas, on the underside of the roof of the gate, and on any tree that is inside the compound of the staff quarters. The birds are aware that the people living here keep chicken. They will protect their chicken from eagles, snakes and all enemies, and the weavers will benefit from that.


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