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Background for Teachers

No Place Like Home
TPW Magazine, December 2008

Whether it's the dropping temperature or the holidays, this time of year brings thoughts of home for many.

What's home for wildlife? Is it a den, a nest, or just the great outdoors? We can think of home as habitat, but this month we'll dig a little deeper and think about it in terms of shelter.

Home, Sweet Home

Wildlife needs shelter, just as humans, but why they need it, the kind of shelter they need and how they achieve it varies by species and availability. Wildlife biologists also use the term "cover" to describe the vegetation where wildlife can safely hide or travel. The role of shelter can include:

  • Protection from predators
  • Protection from weather
  • Safe place to raise young
  • Safe place to rest or breed
  • Safe route to travel for food, water and other needs
  • Place to store food

Some wildlife find shelter, some build it and others carry it on their backs.


To Build or Not To Build

Most fish and wildlife seek shelter or cover, but only some "build" a home. Insects such as ants, wasps and termites create hives and nests, birds build nests and some mammals dig burrows and dens.

Whether an animal builds or seeks a home or not often depends on speed and its young. Large, herding and migrating animals that can move quickly may not need a home for protection or food storage. Deer and wild horses don't build a home but they rely on shelter for a quick escape or safe travel route. Large, fast adults such as wild cats and coyotes have vulnerable young and must find a safe place to raise their young. Small, slow creatures must seek shelter and protection.


Learned or Inherited?

Nest building is an example of an inherited trait. Nesting birds instinctively build a nest to lay eggs and raise their young, even if they've never observed another bird building a nest. But is nest-building also a learned trait? Birds can improve upon nest building and improvise using materials at hand. Older, more experienced birds may build better nests.


Location, Location, Location

Living things are dependent on their habitat and resources found there. Food, water and shelter or "building supplies" must be nearby and accessible. Wildlife that can adapt or are opportunistic have the easiest time surviving in a changing world. Take note of the bobcat on p. 56 in the magazine. Bobcats can still thrive even if their preferred habitat is altered. We'll learn more about species who are specialists, who don't adapt easily, in next month's Keep Texas Wild feature on Rare Species.

Also important to know is that different species of animals use different levels in the vegetation. If some levels of vegetation are removed, then so are the homes and travel routes for these animals. Many wildlife need protection from bad weather in the form of evergreen trees and shrubs, hollow trees, brush and stone piles. Woodpecker holes in dead trees are used by a variety of wildlife for homes and nesting places. Bird houses can help to replace the loss of these dead trees.


Gimme Shelter!

Not all species use shelter for the same purposes, but shelter is key to survival. As a matter of fact, when we think about emergency survival, what's most important: food, water, or shelter? If you said shelter, you'd be right! Survival experts agree that protection from the elements (assuming you have air to breathe) is the first need for survival. People can live without water for three days and without food for three weeks, but in weather extremes such as cold, we would survive only three hours without adequate shelter. Shelter, whether it's part of the habitat, something it builds or part of its physical makeup, is key to wildlife as well.


Additional Resources

Beavers on the Move, TPW Magazine, Feb 2008
Texas Wildlife Identification Guide
Learn About Texas Birds
Nature Trackers: Black-tailed Prairie Dog Watch
Providing for Backyard Wildlife

Young Naturalists Series:


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