The Otter Way of Doing Things
or not doing things
I think otters have a fine sense of control of their lives and they do that by having an almost single minded focus on their environment. Yet they go about the business of their life with such seeming freedom and joy that it seems a shame not to describe them as the happy-go-lucky freebooters of nature. I think the nature of their principal quarry, fish, gives the impression that otters have a mercurial personality. Fish amass in schools, then disperse. Each species has its own underwater niche and habits. Some like the bullhead, a favorite of otters, sleeps in the day, and otters nose along pond bottoms to catch them in the daylight. Since fish are what otters focus on,
to catch them otters learn how to be at the right place at the right time to catch them.
Not for nothing do fishermen put increasingly more powerful engines on their boats. Otters manage by being the high tempo, agile, yet methodical animal that's such a pleasure to watch.
The trouble with my bright idea is that I can't prove it. The otters have a finer sense of timing than I can sense. I do have some sense of how they manage: bullheads at anytime but especially when they spawn in the spring; perch when they school in the late winter; pollywogs when they flourish in the late summer and fall, and a taste of the frogs they become; crayfish at anytime but especially before the river grasses grow over their rocky underwater world; carp when they are weak and ready to die; a steady diet of shiners, minnows, small sunnies. Yet I'll stumble upon the equivalent of fish waiting to be shot in the barrel, a patch of open water in an iced over pond where hundreds of small fish are schooling. Raccoons and minks will stumble on the harvest but not otters. Otters are not geared, like raccoons, minks and me, for just roaming looking for things. To me otters always seem to be going somewhere in particular, on a mission, a rendezvous with the right fish at the right time. This is a strategy that over the ages has gotten them the most food for the least effort. They visit a small deep pond in land I own just at the time when the few pike stocked in the pond swim in the shallow reaches to spawn.
Living under water, fish are less in tune with the rhythms of night and day. Because they live off the fish, otters are also less in tune with night and day. That's why I object to scientists giving a figure for the pounds of fish an otter has to eat in a day. Otters don't live by the day. Since I don't have night vision, not to mention the capability of keeping tabs of otters for 24 hours, I can't prove this, but I think otters pattern their lives on short periods of rest and foraging for fish. When fish seem relatively plentiful my guess is that they fish for from one to two hours, rest for two to three hours,
and then there is travel time from pond to pond, and, in my case, also from island to island. I've seen families take so many long naps in the late morning and late afternoon that otters sleeping eight hours just because it is night time doesn't make much sense to me. To calculate how the otter's pattern of feeding fits into our 24 hour day, for example, to say they are more active at dawn and dusk, is to miss the point. Scientists have discovered a 27 or 28 hour clock in beavers, who co-evolved with otters. Indeed I think the beavers may have developed that strange clock in part to keep up with the untimely visits of otters to their ponds and lodges. All to suggest that I think someone will win a Ph. D. by proving that otters' lives are not divided into days but into broad spaces of possibilities.
However, there seems to be a switch, if not a clock, in otters which prompts them to neglect no possibility. They leave a pond, even a small pool of water, before they've taken every fish, leaving plenty for the blue herons.
Save in the winter, otters relocate about every week or two, which is maddening because they seem to make themselves so much at home in certain ponds I watch. I get to the point where I think I can see them at will, and that they do have regular habits and that I can predict at which pond they'll be at and at which time, but then they are gone for a week or two, sometimes three or four. I am not sure if this pattern of restlessness developed because of the behavior of fish, for example their hiding from the stress of predation by the otters and then recovering from that stress in a week or two. Or the otters' restlessness overrides any calculations they have made about fish since too much of a good thing, in the long run, will turn an otter into something like a lazy old harbor seal living off the excess from a cannery.
Well, I should not chase my wild ideas about otters hither and yon too much farther. My most pleasant moments of otter watching come when a group of otters in seeming synchronicity forage for fish in a pond.
Perhaps because of that I keep harping on otters and fish as my way of vicariously diving in after fish with them.
So let me now admit that I am wrong, and the principal focus of otters is not fish. Like all animals, the principal focus for otters is other otters. Here is a topic about which otters have taught me precious little. Most of my observations occur between August and December, mostly of mothers with sometimes another adult female helper raising from one to four pups. I once saw how unwelcomed a male otter is at the beginning of the pup rearing period. A rather gentle one year old male came into a pond where a mother was feeding her two pups. She promptly led both pups into a den. Another time I saw a mother and two pups fishing and then suddenly try to barge into a lodge occupied by beavers, the broad tailed big toothed vegetarian pond builder. The beaver drove them off with a splash. The otter family hid in the beavers' pile of sticks stored for the winter. Then as the beaver circled the lodge angrily, a male otter nonchalantly swam through the pond. The beaver did nothing. Then after the male otter went over the dam, the mother otter screeched at the beaver and the otter family resumed fishing up pond. I have seen the nicer side of otters.
In late October and November when I sometimes see males join the family, all seems to go harmoniously. There is so much to eat and seeing a large male otter in a pond provides a fine lesson bone crunching dining.
In the winter, on the pond ice, I see different dramas play out. All animals are lock step with a hormonal biological clock. In otters this hectic period, when they separate from families, mate and give birth, comes between January and April, just at the time, especially where I watch otters in the north, when the cold and ice restricts their broad spaces of possibilities. So they shift their focus from now depleted and harder to get fish and chase themselves all over the river ice and island ridges. Of course, they usually wind up under the ice of a pond built by beavers, the broad tailed, big tooth vegetarian that needs big ponds to make it easier to get to the food it eats, since getting under these ponds is the most convenient way for otters to get fish. Things can get crowded. I once followed the trail of the family of four I had been tracking for months, they came into a good size pond then bumped into the tracks and scat of the two otters who were already there. They promptly hurried off to another pond. Late in the winter I sometimes find a riot of tracks on the pond snow and my initial reaction was that the otters were playing. Then I picked up the bloody tracks of one otter leaving the supposed playground. I also saw the lone tracks, unbloodied coming into the pond. This is the time when otter sexual tensions are high, so the otters may not have been simply playing.
The trouble with trying to practice otter psychology and sociology is that humans have kept otters in a stressed condition in North America for some five hundred years. No other predator can so easily drive animals to extinction and the pattern and method of otter trapping, taking mothers when the pups still need them, puts added stress on otters. I think there are three stages in otter population: the stress stage, the recovery stage, and the social stage. In the early 19th century James J. Audubon was told about an abundance of otters in an estuary above Charleston, South Carolina. He described the scene: "They came down with the receding tide in groups or families of five or six together. In the space of two hours we counted forty-six. They soon separated, ascended the different creeks in the salt marshes, and engaged in capturing mullets." Where there are large bodies of water that otters can share, I think otters have enough of the social graces to share, much like whales do when they gather into large groups. Indeed the otter and whale may have descended millions of years ago from the same terrestial mammal who found feeding off what the waters provided a distinct advantage. Otter populations are now too low to support this massing of the families and gangs. In the recovery stage of otter populations, which I sometimes briefly see, and which Scott Shannon has been studying for 13 years on the California coast, grandmother otters reign over the families of their daughters and the males form gangs so one might see six females and pups
and not far away bump into a group of four males in coordinated foraging for fish. Finally there is the stressed stage of otter populations, the norm almost every where, and most likely the norm for some time because the wildlife biologists haven't any inkling about the recovery and social stages. Scientific literature still harps on the otter as being a solitary predator, jealousy guarding territory,
and it's just fine to trap them and send the pelts to China for otter-fur coats if a state's otter population climbs above 5000 or so.
Enough of the negative. Seeing a group of otters in the recovery stage is quite exciting. The six to eight otters of all sizes can bring the water in a five acre pond to a boil as they dive for fish. The otters feed off each others energy and some briefly reach a frenzied state in their diving. The nature films you might have seen, like Yellowstone Otters, to the contrary, otters are generally quiet animals. I never find them quieter than when they are these large groups which I think attests to how comfortable they feel in large groups. Only the pups, still playing more than fishing, might emit a brief growl or two.
In the upbringing of the pups, I see the roots of the otters social nature. I once saw a litter of three year olds moving through the pond in a roiling circle as they chased each other's tails. Then mother teaches to sit on a log and wait to be fed.
At four and five months they are leapers pouncing on each other. Even at six months the mother otter is still throwing fish to them, trying to interrupt their play with work. She tolerates serving as a dinner plate.
At seven months they begin pulling it all together,
and they are as seldom as orderly as that photo above! In brief, they get fish by circling around them in the shallows and diving down, often trapping them at the edges of clumps of grass or logs. In deeper water they make a series of dives like a porpoise, scare up fish and give chase. As they cruise the pond with their siblings like a well coordinated fleet they finally get fish with out mother's help and I've seen them celebrate success by flying in the air.
When they catch a fish, they eat it on the run if it is small enough. If they need to grip it while they eat it, they usually go to a log where they can sit and eat.
I very rarely see them flip onto their backs and eat the fish as it dangles on their belly. Meanwhile the mother has to acquaint them with their full range of possibilities and she takes them out into the huge river, showing them the marshes and the rocky homes of the crayfish. They are still a month or two from separation from their mother and when I see them all sleeping together in a huge pile on a beaver lodge, I wonder if they have any idea of what is store for them. The final lesson is adjusting to the frozen river and frozen ponds, the pure joy, so it appears to me, of sliding on the snow and ice.
Mother shows them to how to find a hole in the ice, how to make a hole in the dam to get the water flowing, to open an air passage between the ice and water level, and to give the fish less water to hide in. They might all stay under the ice of a large pond for almost five weeks, coming out for air every couple of days. Finally there are a few tough lessons in going from pond to pond
never knowing if they can find a hole in the ice.
And then in late January or early February the mother tries to escape from them. Often they find her again, perhaps completing a lesson because she often leads them to the highest point on the island, a hundred feet above the river, where if they took the time they could look to the south and see the American mainland and to the north and see Canada,
but otters always hurry on, gaining the high ground so they can slide down long hills. But she'll try to escape again and eventually succeed and then have another litter and roughly at the same time be found briefly by a male, sometimes after another good chase over hill and dale, so the cycle can begin again. The otter mother delays implantation of her fertile eggs for ten months so that her pups will always be born in the spring affording time enough to teach them to survive the following winter. The pups still like to stay together. At least if they do, I can more easily keep track of them and enjoy their forays out of the holes in the pond onto the refreshing snow and ice.
I seldom see them, I think because accustomed to the darkness, they are loath to come out in the bright winter sun. Then with a few thaws they reacclimate themselves to their world of ponds
and learn how easy it can be to break through rotting ice.
Then the river opens up and the taste of big perch
and crayfish attract them, with bullheads ready to amass at the mouths of creeks by the hundreds.
Of course I make it sound to easy. Some will be trapped and their pelts sent to China for top dollar, $50 to $210. Others will starve. It is hard for me to keep track because living on a river that leads to all the world how many otters disperse in the spring and how far they go are mysteries to me. If I am lucky I will see a male otter remarking territory, and then after a month of tantalizing clues, I will see the mother reappear with her new pups in July. If the river water is high keeping the cattail marshes flooded,
I might first see them there, but the best viewing is up in a beaver pond where, as long as the fish hold out, an otter's life seems mighty good to me.
I avoided using video clips on this page. I may get around to putting them on too. In the meantime my "Otter Video Book" discusses otter territory and how mother's raise pups and I use all the video clips I can in that. I also hope to soon put on line my observations on otter encounters with beavers, which generally sorts out this way:
beaver prepares to attack
otter says goodbye
and me too
by Bob Arnebeck
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