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A Short Course on Beaver Part Three

Since entrances to the lodge are invariably underwater the beaver feels so safe in the pond that it swims with impunity to every corner of it. Indeed, one of the consummate feats of engineering that beavers accomplish is making canals that extend the watery reach of the pond.

Beavers use the same talent for digging to create a system of channels through out the pond, and especially around the lodge, so that they will have water around even during droughts and long winters when the top few feet of a pond can turn to ice.

While beavers can be out of their lodges at any time, the best chance to see a beaver is at dusk or dawn, though in the spring and winter they are often out in mid-day. Look for a black or brown furry animal about the size of a small dog swimming slowly with its large, flat triangular shaped head and large nose just out of the water.

Beavers are excellent swimmers, propelling themselves with large webbed feet,

and steering with their large tail.

They frequently dive under water, where they can swim more rapidly, and can stay under for several minutes.

On land they walk with a slow gait but when aroused they can hop with their hind feet and increase their speed.

They have excellent senses of smell and hearing, but see poorly. A characteristic pose of a beaver on the shore of the pond is to rear up on its hind legs, lean forward, and sniff the air.

At times they can appear as agile as a dancing bear. If you are lucky enough to see one working in the ice and snow, you can get a better measure of their strength.

And to me, for their size, beavers have the strength of an elephant. The photo below shows a beaver in late June placidly munching leaves. The video I took the photo from shows the struggle it took for the beaver to drag the tree to the pond.

But this makes the beaver's life seem a little too strenuous. Remember, they also like to eat grass

especially the first luscious green sprouts.

Beavers live in colonies of, in my experience, up to eight individuals. They often sleep together in a lodge not much bigger than a two man tent. So they are very social animals. However, outside of the lodge they usually move and work independently. That said, all their work is communal, not only dam and lodge building, but in foraging for and consuming trees. They often resume eating the bark on a log or branch where another beaver has left off.

Many animals leave their excrement behind, but beavers are rather fastidious. The only time I've found the light brown cakes the consistency of wet sawdust is on the ice outside a hole beavers use to get out from under the pond in the winter.

Many books insist that beavers prefer to stay under the ice all winter, swimming out from their lodge collecting branches under the ice that they sank around the lodge and then bringing them back to the lodge. In the shallow ponds I watch during the long cold North Country winters, beavers invariably come out in the winter, frequently if they can manage it. Indeed, I get my best videos of beavers in the winter.

Beavers manage the ice with head butts, teeth and tail. The photo below shows two beavers in their favorite hole on the shore of a pond about fifty yards from their lodge. The video I took the photo from shows how they break and haul ice to keep the hole open.

The great thing about seeing beavers come out from under the ice, is that, when they do, they generally are up to something. In other seasons, a beaver sometimes pulls itself out of the pond only to get some sun,

and sometimes nap in the open. A beaver can spend many minutes grooming itself, scratching and smoothing as much fur as it can reach.

And one day in late March I got very close to a beaver grooming on a snow covered dam.

I put the video of this on Google Video. Check it out:

Beavers will sit together or in groups of three to mutually groom and play,

generally shoving matches. This tussle took place out in the pond.

I hope one impression that you are getting is that a beaver is a powerful animal. In my opinion, outside of trapping, the principal cause of beaver mortality is starvation and its attendant diseases. Otters and other carnivores familiar with swamps might appear to be effective predators, but the powerful jaws of the beaver appear to deter them and I have several times seen otters back down from a confrontation with a beaver. In the photo below that's an otter fleeing and a beaver pursuing:

And here is an even more exciting encounter: a beaver attacking an otter! Double click the Google Video box if you have a fast internet connection.

Beavers can get impatient with other beavers. With interlopers from outside the colony they can be violent. Older, larger beavers not infrequently shove away smaller beavers who come too close to them. However, the general demeanor of a beaver is placid, even gentle. One beaver seldom appears to be busy. However, a group of beavers with their pattern of constantly revisiting the work of their fellow colony members, can properly be described as busy, but never in the way an equal number of otters, for example, can literally make a pond boil with activity. Let me reiterate: in all my years of watching beavers none has ever made a threatening gesture at me. The beaver in the photo below was somewhat in my way. How polite it was when I negotiated my passage through its territory.

Of course sitting on the ice they can't slap their tail. About a third of the time when I approach beavers, they do not slap their tails at all, and instead seem to camouflage themselves as a floating log drifting in the pond

betraying no motion save an infrequently blinking eye and slight twitch of the nose. Beavers communicate by mewing or humming to each other. During the day when beavers are likely asleep inside their lodges, it is still worthwhile standing near a lodge to listen for their humming. Beavers have never made a noise at me beyond a hissing distress call when I am too close to them on land. I personally believe beavers do a great deal of communicating by what might be called body language as translated on the surface of the pond. They often swim silently past each other when in doubt about my presense on the shore of their pond.

Well, I think I am beginning to repeat myself. Looking at beavers too long, I sometimes lull myself into thinking they almost live in timeless world as they swim in circles. But beavers are the main cog in a system of renewal.

The baby beaver, usually born in May, is well protected and pampered for a month or so, even catching rides on adult tails, but when the serious work of preparing for the winter gets under way, the soft mewing of a small beaver is often answered with a sharp whine from the adult, and the little one sets out on its own and tries to imitate its parents.

Like all rodents beavers can be prolific. Since they were almost trapped to extinction by 1900, in the last 100 years they have been reestablishing their range and population. In my experience beavers may regulate the size of their litters to suit available resources. For example, a colony that had three offspring four years ago, seems, in face of diminished resources, to content itself with one, and currently has four members. That said, further upstream in an area with even less resources there was a colony of at least eight beavers, but they lived in the biggest pond on the island. So the more important variable might not be trees and plants available, but just the size of the pond. A colony consists of an adult male and female beaver, their babies and possibly some of their offspring from previous litters. Individual beavers leave the colony to find mates, and reportedly mate by February and mate for life. In my experience the pairing of beavers does not necessarily lead to offspring.

In my opinion, because it is tied so closely to a colony rooted in a particular bend in the river, more than that of most mammals, beaver behavior has a large cultural component. So that while it is true that beavers have an innate propensity to cut trees and dam running water, different colonies seem to have different ways of solving similar problems using the tools nature gave them. For example, when beavers first returned to Wellesley Island State Park, they built large lodges in the middle of ponds. Since then they have only made lodges by the banks of the new ponds they've created.

At first glance there seems to be a rich scientific literature on beavers. However on closer scrutiny you will find that it is not so much the beaver itself but the changes in the environment that it can make that intrigues scientists. For example a beaver dam can radically change the flora and fauna of a river valley.

The great pleasure in watching beavers arises from a sense one gets that beavers are more complex than other animals. Adding still more to that pleasure is that the complex environment beavers create serves as home and foraging ground for a myriad of other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. And more than any other animal that I watch, beavers seem to notice those with whom they share their pond.

 

by Bob Arnebeck

mailto: bobarnebeck@gmail.com