My View of Hope Ryden's Lily Pond

by Bob Arnebeck

This is certainly one of the best books about beavers. It has everything from intimate personal encounters with beavers to apt summaries of current scientific research on beavers. Ryden is a very good writer and her black and white photographs of beavers aren't bad either. I read this book before I moved to Wellesley Island and it set the tone of my own observations of beavers. While beavers are closer to my home than they were to Ryden's, I didn't have the luxury of driving to a beaver pond and having a short walk from the car to a good observation point. So my observations were never as rigorous as hers, but in seven years I've seen just about the same behavior as she did. But living close to the ponds has one advantage. I suffered the same winter weather, and that led to the first bone I have to pick with Ryden.

I recall that when the first hard cold froze the beaver ponds I had been watching, I actually called out to one of the lodges I watched: "see you in the spring, beavers." I soon learned that watching beavers throughout the winter is as entertaining as watching them any other time of year. And I use the word "entertaining" advisedly. Winter is an anxious time in Ryden's book. Twice she and her friend cut the ice to feed beavers who they feared were on the verge of starvation. The first time she does this is during her first winter watching beavers at Lily Pond. The beavers there did not store food outside their lodge for the winter and she feared that they had nothing to eat. Ryden is a practiced writer and knows the importance in story telling of creating dramatic tension, but I can't help but think her "discovery" that her beavers survived on lily roots is a bit disingenuous. One of the early 17th century reports on beavers in the New World notes that they eat roots.

Her second winter rescue took place at the New Pond where she feared, and measurements proved to her, that there was virtually no water remaining in the pond where the beavers had built a lodge. The pond ice was on the verge of freezing to the pond bottom. In the winter of 1999-2000, for the first time in years ,the beavers I watch did not make holes in the ice in the usual places to allow for foraging of trees around the frozen pond. I always assume that beavers know their business better than I, so I didn't worry. I assumed that the way the ice froze made the difference; that the beavers could comfortably forage under the ice. I call the shallowest pond I watch Shangri-la and for years I assumed that the beavers who were there in the fall moved out before the pond froze. This pond froze first, froze most solidly and was the last pond to thaw in the spring. Imagine my surprise when in late January I found a hole in the ice next to one of the three lodges there.

This hole had been gnawed through at least a foot of solid ice. The beavers came out of it, and I have photos of this,

and went up high ridges to cut trees and then brought the branches down, segmented them, and pushed them into the hole. Of course they also did a lot of eating outside the hole. There was so little water remaining under the ice that for the first time ever I saw large amounts of beaver droppings on the ice.

This pond is difficult for me to get to, so I can't positively say the beavers there survived the winter, but when I saw them they looked quite healthy. In their foraging they climbed up an almost vertical 75 foot cliff. All this to say that Ryden might have learned more about beavers if she had not fed them in the winter.

As I've said elsewhere in these pages, I do not name beavers. Ryden gave all the beavers she observed names and speculated on their sex and relationships to each other. The beaver colony she describes soon becomes not unlike a human family. Again I think the practiced writer gets the better of her as at the beginning of the book she describes siblings guarding the sticks they are gnawing and as she describes parents making space and time for themselves. How like the modern American family, that nexus of dutiful selfishness! Fortunately, before the book ends Ryden corrects herself, and describes the cooperative behavior of beavers, and even observes and explains the advantages of the incestuous behavior of beavers.

I find it interesting that whenever she sets out to name beavers she does so by interfering with the natural ecology of the pond. She imports cut sticks and lays them out to lure the beavers over so she can give them names and humanize them. Fortunately she alerts the readers to the danger of this; it can make beavers too trusting of humans, most of whom do not have their best interest in mind. However, I think this practice had an unfortunate tendency to narrow her focus on the pond. No animal gives more of the illusion of being a home body than a beaver. Yet few beaver ponds sit in isolation. They are a part of a larger watershed in most cases engineered by the beavers themselves. Certainly she touches on this too and emphasizes its importance in the renewal of the land but describing this in great detail and with great care is of most importance to the survival of the beaver as a key creative force in nature. We will always tolerate beaver ponds for they are such pleasing curiosities. The question is: will we tolerate, if not celebrate, the beavers' total watershed?

Now, I'll give some page by page comments, with generous quotes from Ryden which themselves should prompt you to read this well written and informative book:

page 13: "Under ideal conditions, a beaver-watcher can expect to obtain but a penny's worth of information for hours of time invested. During the long lulls, the presence of other kinds of animals can provide welcome diversion. And the otter, being the most playful of species, would be great fun to watch." I watch both beavers and otters and by a factor of 50 to one, beavers provide a great deal more "information" for the amount of time invested. Even when beavers are not present at the surface of a pond, in ponds where they harvest wood, they leave many pleasing examples of their work. When beavers are observable, because of the stately way they move, their movements are much easier to comprehend and enjoy, than an otters. Because of their bulk you more easily see what they are doing as compared to a muskrat. Plus since they do several things in a pond - work on the dam, collect wood, eat bark, eat roots and play, every trip to the pond can become a story in itself. When beavers aren't present and you decide to root yourself to one pond, the best evening entertainment comes from birds, and, believe it or not, fish. Just as the sun goes down, fish often kiss the surface if not jump out of the water!

Page 19: "Fragrant water lilies and yellow bullheads blanketed the surface of the water in such matted profusion that the slightest breeze caused their overlapping pads to tip on edge, revealing some bright red undersides. The flapping leaves were distracting. They seized my attention again and again, as I scanned the pond for animal movement. But here and there were breaks in the floral mats, narrow bands of open water laid out in a geometric pattern to suggest beavers had created them. One sparkling ring encircled the pond and several spokes extended from the bank lodge to various shore points." Of course, beavers did create these patterns, but as a general rule paths in the pond vegetation are created by muskrats. I've observed that these smaller rodents are much more prone to stick to one or two routes in collecting veggies to eat. In an hour, you might see muskrats go out to a point in the pond and back to their lodge (which can be a beaver lodge), four or five times.

Page 23: "The absence of any of the beaver's preferred food trees, namely aspen, willow, birch and alder, suggested that its aquatic phase might be on the wane. On the other hand, perhaps there were food resources here that I failed to recognize. Little is known of the beaver's use of aquatic plants, and a wide variety of these species were in bloom." As I mentioned above, I think Ryden may have suggested that little was known about beavers eating aquatic plants to help with the dramatic tension of her book. Victor Calahane worked in New York state in the 1930s and 40s and so what knowledge he had of beavers might be considered as generally known among knowledgeable beaver-watchers in New York, which is where Lily Pond is located. He wrote in his book Mammals of North America: "Many people think that the beaver eats nothing but the bark of poplar trees. Actually it has greatly varied menus, for a vegetarian. In summer it eats many aquatic plants, including duckweed, eelgrass, waterlily roots and duck potato. It has also been known to cut raspberry canes for their delicate flavor. After a long winter on an exclusive diet of bark and a few underwater plants, the northern beaver is probably especially eager to sample grass, herbs, roots, shoots, buds and leaves of many small land plants and shrubs." I've seen beavers eating most of those items even in the height of summer. I suspect this year that they were sampling mayapples, leaves, blossoms and fruit, but I didn't actually see them do it. Let me know if you have.

page 25: "Every evening the big beaver performed the same ritual. At recisely 6:10, he exited his lodge through an underwater plunge hole, surfaced and floated in place for a minute, perhaps to allow his beady eyes to become adjusted to the light. Then he headed directly for the dam, which he thoroughly inspected. Back and forth along its 150-foot length he swam, looking and listening for leaks. When satisfied that no water was spilling over its crest, he dived and traveled underwater along its base, looking for seepage there. His diligent attention to the condition of this amazing structure, which measured five feet high on the down-stream side, promptled me to name him the Inspector General." This passage gives me a great deal of trouble, and yet I cannot doubt her word. She was there religiously, took notes, and had a watch! I wander the swamps and happen to drop in on ponds at all hours of the day and evening, and while I have a camcorder, I don't take notes and I don't pay that much attention to the time. Once I noticed a beaver coming out of the same lodge at the same time, about 5:30 pm, for two or three evenings in row. I made a point of coming out at the time again, and the beaver didn't appear on schedule, nor at other 5:30's when I happened to be near that pond. I would suggest that Ryden herself created the clockwork. She came at the same time every day and her presence registered on the beaver in about the same time. His tour of the dam was not to inspect the dam but to make a wide assessment of the threat he sensed. He dove to get something to eat. I think beavers orient toward the dam because that is where they store their left overs and they get quick snacks. I don't think beavers have as much anxiety about their dam as Ryden suggests. I've never noticed touring the dam as being the exclusive occupation of the largest beaver. Here again, I think she is bending over backwards to create a Daddy for the beaver family.

page 26-27: "Throughout winter these family members, sometimes as many as fourteen, hole up together in a dark lodge and share food from a common larder. To do so without shedding blood, Castor canadensis would have to have evolved a number of complex social strategies, such as the capacity to give and solicit care, a means of expressing appeasement and assertiveness, the ability to communicate by contact sounds and display postures, and, above all, a high threshold for the release of aggressive behavior. What intrigued me was evidence I had seen that the beaver not only possesses this social repertoire, but is quite capable of directing it toward nonbeavers, that it sometimes forms relationships with human beings. Some years earlier I note that this very thing had happened between Hope Buyukmihci and the wild beavers that inhabit her Unexpected Wildlife Refuge near Newfield, New Jersey. To say that the animals that resided in the refuge pond recognized her would be understating the case. They came when she called." Research has shown that while beavers don't hibernate in the winter, they can lapse into a torpor. I would suggest that when travel outside the lodge is difficult because of deep freeze or changing ice conditions and snow, that beavers simply slow down defeating any "cabin fever." I don't think the ability of animals to survive the winter together makes them more likely to form relationships with human beings. Free handouts are the trick.

page 29 "Now it was my hope that the Inspector General would grant me the same privileged relationship that Hope and Dorothy had enjoyed with their beaver friends. At times I imagined he was actually contemplating such a move, for on occasion he would stop swimming and drift, eyes fied on my motionless form. What was going on in his beaver mind? But then he would revert to his wild ways and become agitated by my presence." I've often observed this floating behavior in front of me and even when I fancied the beaver might have some familiarity with my scent, I assumed that it was just a form of protective camouflage. The floating beaver can look exactly like a floating log.

page 29-30: "What is the beaver trying to say when he slaps the water?" I like Ryden's answers to this. The slap often does not alarm other beavers; and, as she writes "Perhaps it matters who it is slaps out the message." I've seen the slaps of kits and yearlings totally ignored. I've seen the slaps of two years olds ignored. I've seen the dominant beaver clear the colony out of a pond not by slapping at all, just by moving out in the pond and diving. I also agree with her thought that the splash is primarily designed to drive away the disturber. I get the most vociferous splashing when I seem to be in the way of where the beavers want to work or eat, and at night when if the beavers didn't splash, I might not even know they are there.

page 32: She describes a beaver in a slapping frenzy as an otter porpoised near the lodge, then adds "on most occasions, my beavers and the otters that frequented Lily Pond seemed content to tolerate one another. It would have to be so. A beaver cannot slap the water perpetually, and a fish-eating otter normally poses no threat to a beaver colony." The one time I saw a beaver splash an otter was in the late summer when two beavers were upset that three otters moved into their lodge. Fortunately there was another beaver lodge nearby, a newer one at that, and the beavers moved over there. Otters like the older lodges because, it seems to me, they are more comfortable for lounging, squirming, scratching and snoozing on top. I once saw a beaver confront a mother otter and three pups. The beaver won that stand down; the otters did the splashing and retreating. But usually, as Ryden writes, the beavers and otters don't bother each other, if they even deign to notice each other.

page 34: "Getting to know this odd animal and his companions was going to take a long, long time. Meanwhile, I was grateful to him for what help he was giving me - even if he did dispense it a penny's worth at a time." In my experience she exaggerates how long it takes to seem to get to know a beaver. Compared to otters, muskrats and minks, beavers seem to have the most curiousity about people. They can react promptly to human incursions by disappearing, but usually they make a point of either swimming angrily and splashing (and that display can go on for some time), or of coming quite close and sniffing the air in front of you to such an extent that you begin to question who is studying who. This may well simply be a result of their greater body size and slower matabolism, but it gives the impression not only that this beaver might want to be your friend, but that in its mind, it might have met you some place before.

 

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