Yes, there might be a few complaints about the presence of beavers in some areas, but it’s time to take a look at the beaver in a positive light that focuses on the benefits and inspirational values of these industrious and social, primarily nocturnal, semi-aquatic mammals. This is a species of wildlife that is a “few and far between” admit to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC, but when it happens, it’s quite the event for the staffers and volunteers who work there. Despite some people’s displeasure regarding beaver behaviors, we wildlife rehabilitators stand tall, on each side of the beaver, in support of this magnificent animal capable of engineering landscape like very few animals can. Because the beaver is second only to humans in their ability to manipulate their environment, Native Americans called them “Little People,” conveying great respect for their abilities. The beaver is the largest rodent (mammals that gnaw) in North America, weighing between 35 and 50 pounds as adults. However, beavers weighing up to 90 lbs have been reported. Beavers are 2-3 feet in length, with an additional 10-18 inches for the tail. When they reach 2 1/2 years of age, they select mates for life, and males and females are similar in size. Beavers live in large family groups called colonies made up of monogamous parents, newborns called kits and the yearlings from the previous spring. Beavers have short front legs and webbed hind feet with a double claw on the second toe that they use to comb their fur. The beaver’s fluffy fur, made waterproof by coating it with castoreum, an oily secretion from its scent glands, is chestnut brown to blackish. Two noticeable features are its large, bright orange incisor teeth that never stop growing which are used for cutting bark and chiseling trees and its very large, uniquely flat, hairless tail. The beaver uses its flat, stiff tail as a rudder for swimming, slapping the water to communicate warnings, storing fat and also as a third leg for support when standing upright. Beavers are slow and merely waddle on land, but agile and quick in the water. Some of the physical features and capabilities of the beaver are unparalleled and downright amazing! Did you know they have a set of transparent eyelids allowing them to see under water? Beavers also close their ears and nose while submerged. They can hold their breath under water for up to 15 minutes, and their lips seal behind their incisors, allowing them to gnaw wood underwater. Astounding! They live in freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, usually near woodlands, although beavers do not eat fish. They are strict herbivores and their favorite foods include leaves and green bark (cambium) from aspen, twigs, roots, aquatic plants such as water lily tubers, clover, grasses, apples, alfalfa and fast-growing trees. Beaver pruning stimulates trees and bushes to grow healthier and larger in the spring. When they take down a tree they don’t waste a thing. They eat the bark and buds before cutting up branches and sections of the trunk which are carried away for use in the construction of dams or lodges. Lodges built with tree limbs, sticks, twigs, mud and sometimes rocks help slow the flow of floodwaters, control erosion and sedimentation, provides or enlarges habitat for wood ducks and other wetland wildlife, increases fish and aquatic plant populations, creates an ecosystem that breaks down pesticides thereby producing cleaner water downstream and dramatically influences the maintenance of wetlands during extreme drought, recharging ground water resources. Now wouldn’t you agree that’s quite a bit to say “Thank You” for? Although beavers mark their territory with “scent mounds,” piles of mud and sticks that the beaver coats in musk oil, they will occasionally share their home with another species such as a family of muskrats. Their lodges typically contain two dens, one for drying off after entering the lodge under water and a dryer den where the family will live and socialize. The damming that results from the construction of their lodge serves a number of purposes for the beaver; water becomes deep enough for the beaver to swim in, they are able to stockpile food under water, and beaver lodges are designed with multiple, deep entrances and exits for protection from predators. Coyotes, black bear, eagles and humans are common predators of beavers. Beavers do not hibernate, remaining active all winter long. Most beaver mates will not reproduce until they are 3 years of age and typically birth one litter of offspring between March and May after a gestation period of 4 months. Two to six, eyes open, kits are born weighing about one pound each and able to swim the day they are born, but to stay safe they stick to the water inside the lodge. They are weaned from mother’s milk within 6-8 weeks, but beaver young stay with their parents for at least 2 years before venturing out on their own, after stern encouragement from their parents, to find a mate and build their own domelike home. A beaver’s longevity can be 20 years, but most live only half that. Okay, so they take a few trees here and there, they aren’t wasteful! They fell a particular tree for a particular reason; a larger mature tree will be felled to form the basis of a dam. A young, second growth tree will be felled for food. Beavers will also fell broad-leaved trees to encourage new growth, creating a closer food source. And okay, they may reroute a stream or two, but let’s say thanks to the beavers for all the good things they do and the amazing, adorable creatures they are. I’m guessing most people will agree that the beaver is quite cute, especially baby beavers! However, never approach a beaver, even if it appears docile, friendly or cute. They will become frightened and start hissing or blowing. That means the beaver is not happy. A beaver is a wild animal and capable of great harm to you (remember, they chew trees), so respect for these incredible little architects and environmental partners is due. This month, when we reflect on all we are thankful for, let’s thank the beavers!
Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!!!
author of “Save Them All“