Beaver Lodges

A beaver lodge turns the world we know on its head. It shuts the light out and opens to an underwater realm. Understand a beaver lodge and you will understand why beavers are so level headed, so unlike humans who aspire to the heavens. When beavers awake they open their eyes in darkness and then ease themselves into the surrounding water. Any light above is defused throughout their water world, and when they are thriving the surrounding water is made opaque by the fine grains of suspended dirt from the mud they constantly dig to find roots and plants for food.

The beaver is a builder, an earth shaper second only to humankind, but there is not a hint of sun worship in its religion. Beavers build pyramids but their alignment signifies no fear of the Zodiac. They build lodges convenient to trees they can cut and surrounded by bottom they can dredge. Stick your head straight down in the water outside a beaver lodge and you will often see a forest of logs. Look underwater in the fall and you see the beavers' winter food, sunk in the mud. Look in the spring and you see their leftovers.

When we build we begin with a map and a plan. We look down and try to envision the rise of our future comfort. A beaver begins on the level, floating in a stream that, to a beaver nose sniffing just above the surface, is redolent with the smell of surrounding willow, aspens, poplars, birch, and maple. And if when extended just below the level, a beaver's paw can feel mud then a lodge can be built that will soon be surrounded by the rising water stilled behind the dam the beaver will also build,

and that is a photo easier to take when the surrounding pond has frozen over enough to support your curious weight.

Inside the beavers fashion two levels: drying platforms just up from the water of their entrances into the lodge and a large space where they will spend many hours. I have knelt around many a beaver lodge left high and dry, and never found one that could accommodate me. But I did send my son, his friends, a thin teacher, and some of his fourth graders into an abandoned lodge, not all at the same time. Here is a photo taken inside the lodge showing the hole coming up from the entrance to the lodge and opening into the platform.

Here is a photo of Ottoleo and Marty Cain relaxing inside the lodge.

That thin teacher fit inside the lodge with two students. Of course, when all these people climbed into the lodge, the mud pack that the beavers once had on the outside had washed away, and coyotes had dug a hole it from the top.

There was plenty of light inside the lodge, even without the camera flash and a flashlight. When beavers use the lodge all is perfect darkness save for one or two small vent holes in the roof that let out steam in the winter but don't let in much light, if any. When Ottoleo climbed into the lodge, he held the camcorder switched onto "Nightshot." Maybe the video clip below gives a better idea of how a beaver sees the inside of the lodge than flash photos do:

In the videoclip Ottoleo, then 14, mentions the beaver bank lodge I had him explore back when he was 8 years old. In my experience beavers like bank lodges just as well as lodges in the middle of the pond. As the pond level rises the water might lap against a bank of earth that the beavers can easily dig into.

They will excavate a gentle rise into the bank so that when the water rises behind the dam, the beaver will be able to maintain its level standard of living: waking in darkness and swimming into water to rediscover the world, a process that one day my 8 year old son Ottoleo tried to reverse.

The burrow dug, the beavers will usually conceal the entrance with logs and branches.

Intricate as that work appears to be, beavers can make a lodge in a matter of days and they move from one to another on almost an annual basis. While a large lodge in the middle of a large pond might seem to be the acme of beaver habitation, I frequently see beavers moving to lodges on the fringes of ponds. So it is the completely stand alone lodge, which we think is the pinnacle of lodge building, that is to the beaver an inconvenient stop gap built while water is rising behind a dam. When the pond is large, they like a lodge in the shade by the shore (there are usually some trees they don't cut.) And they like a lodge close to burrows into the deep earth along the shore of the pond. Recently beavers in a pond I watch responded to rising water by reoccupying a bank lodge, as evidenced by their putting mud on it,

while at the same time staying in a lodge out in the pond nearby which they had also mudded over and where they cached sticks for the coming winter in front of the lodge. When I took the photo below, I heard the beavers humming inside that lodge.

I guess the beavers like the option of moving into a hole in the bank. Beavers are rodents after all and a tunnel into the earth seems a special place to them. As feeding begins in the early evening, I often see beavers leave the large lodge, grab a stick to nibble, and dive with it into a burrow. Sometimes I hear gnawing in the earth below me.

That said, I do not want to give the impression that beavers are uncomfortable in their lodge. Even in the early evening, after they've been cooped up in a lodge all day sleeping, beavers will surface on the pond, find a bit to eat and take it back into the lodge they came from, or another lodge or simply a burrow where they might stay for a half hour before coming out again. Quite possibly this arises from discomfort being in the lingering daylight, but I've camped next to lodges and have heard the sloshing comings and goings all night. I'm beginning to the think beavers linger in their lodges to save themselves from the duties and indignities of being outside. Inside the lodge, the smaller beavers can avoid the shoves of the bigger beavers, and the bigger beavers can avoid the scores of on-going projects like dam repair, canal building, tree cutting, logging, hauling, and looking for new trees to cut.

Yes, I am suggesting that beavers can be lazy. Consider this: they make their lodges out of left overs, and I've seen beavers climb a lodge and find a bit of bark to eat on a log laying on top. However, this clinging to the lodge depends a great deal on the size of a pond. In a large pond sitting yourself near a lodge can sometimes be the worse place to look for beavers even in the early evening. The beavers often swim to the far reaches of the pond as soon as they get out of the lodge, and might not come back for hours.

There is a seasonal pattern to this. During the late spring, summer and early fall, beavers typically go far afield. Where I live, by October beavers begin piling branches in the water outside their lodge. This will be food for the winter,

and just as important, food for fattening up during the fall. During the summer beavers might swim a mile for a meal. In the late fall they will pop out of the lodge, crawl in their food cache and gorge. They are not looking for exercise, they are looking for body fat.

Then when the ice freezes the pond, common sense says that the beavers are not going to go far from the lodge but that is not always the case. In one large shallow pond that I watch, the beavers began the fall in seemingly good fashion, they had a nice lodge on the northern shore which would be bathed in warmth by the low winter sun. They had packed the lodge with mud after the first few freezes, adding insulation and protection from the coyotes who always sniff around beaver lodges in the winter. They had a spread of sticks fanning from the lodge for their winter fare. But in January I saw them pop out of a hole on the south shore of the pond near a rather old lodge that had not even been prepared for the winter. For the rest of the winter they came out of that hole and foraged for trees in the nearby woods. As the ice began to thaw, they moved back to the lodge they had prepared for the winter. Another time in another pond, the beavers abandoned the lodge they were using and moved into one of their dams for the winter.

With the spring thaw, camping around a beaver lodge is the best place to see them and even when they don't pop in the patches of open water around the lodge, you can marvel at the considerable raft of stripped logs floating around and frozen into the ice around the lodge. Seeing all that building material around, it is easier to understand why a colony of beavers doesn't get too sentimental about a lodge. There's too much floating around them with which to make another one. Of course, there is nothing sadder looking than an abandoned lodge

But despite the holes and sorry appearance, beavers are seldom driven from their lodges by predators like coyotoes. Indeed, in my experience the lodge in the middle of a pond which to us looks so safe and so permanent, is generally the beavers first home. As the pond gets bigger, they like to build a lodge closer to where they are gathering trees and roots for food. When I first observed the Otter Hole Pond beavers they lived in large lodge roughly 20 yards above the dam and at least 30 yards from any shore. Any predator, man included, would have difficulty barging into that lodge. Yet the four lodges these beavers built after that were accessible. One was partially on land, two were just a leap off shore, and the other was in the dam which could be easily crossed by the fox, coyote or humans that come to those ponds. There were no burrows in the dry ground associated with these lodges.

A lodge is never a beaver's castle. They move too often. And when they are inside, they are not that possessive of their lodges. I frequently see them share it with muskrats. While I have seen them try to drive otters away from a lodge, I have also seen them share it with otters,too. They also tolerate sunning snapping turtles and nesting geese, which might sound innocent enough, but both animals, not to mention otters and muskrats, have telling bites. Of course, beavers do drive beavers from other colonies away from their lodges. After all, a lodge can get rather crowded with beavers of just one family. I've seen eight go in and out of one, not too large, lodge. A colony typically has a mother and a father, this year's litter and last year's litter.

Now and then I see beavers sleeping on the bank of the pond. I think they are outcasts, looking for their own ponds and forbidden by resident colonies to use the lodges and burrows in the ponds they control. I wrote a story about one of these outcasts which you can find at bstory.html.)

 

Check back later. I hope to write more and show more photos.

 

 

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