Thank the Beavers!!

FB_beaverpond_edited-1Yes, 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.FB_Blog_BeaverTail_edited-1 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.FB_Blog_beaver-02 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. FB_Blog_BeaverKit_edited-1They 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!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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Muskrat Love!

Native Americans call them “little brothers of the beaver.” They swim, gnaw, build houses, eat the same foods and even resemble beavers. They received the name Muskrat, because like the beaver, they have a pair of musk glands to use when they need to scent message other animals in the area to include those of their own kind. So that’s where the “musk” part came from, and the “rat” part came from that long, skinny and seemingly hairless when wet, tail, which is a dead give-away that you’re not looking at a beaver. We don’t get many muskrats, orphans or adults, admitted for care at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, but when we do, despite the muskrat’s persecution for centuries, OWLS is a safe haven for them because we treat all wildlife equally and with respect. They get the same royal treatment just like any other indigenous species admitted to our clinic. Besides, these chunky little mammals are way too cute, wear strikingly beautiful fur and have squeaky and intriguing conversations with each other! A while back, we raised two orphans who treated us to quite the aquatic mammal experience. Aware of the timid ways of the elusive and shy beaver cousins, we ensured their makeshift habitat was loaded with leaved limbs, hiding places, and water sources to enjoy. They didn’t do anything to get themselves in trouble, but we still had to place them behind steel bars or as all efficient rodents would do, they’d chew out whenever they wanted. With all our infant wildlife, we take extreme measures to ensure they don’t become friendly towards people. If we allow them to bond with us, their chances of survival in the wild would be zero. Muskrats are easier to keep wild than most because they tend to be skittish, frightful of people and non-aggressive, although will bite if they perceive danger. In defense of the “in the wild” muskrat though, they seldom invade our residential spaces because they are always close to water, and usually marshy, human uninhabitable wetlands at that. So, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans, fascinating little creatures and can entertain anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them. In North Carolina, muskrats are common in most river systems but rare in our southeastern coastal regions, which is the main reason OWLS’s rehabilitators don’t get much hands-on with muskrats. Where ever a musky chooses to call home, it will dig into a bank or build a free standing house by piling aquatic vegetation into a mound, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with several chambers and tunnels leading into the water; quite impressive and masterful engineering. These lodges, also called push-ups or mounds, are not as grand as beaver lodges. The muskrat does not haul in logs and slap on mud. The fashioned mounds of grasses, reeds, and small sticks are only a few feet high. Sometimes they build the mounds around trunks of dead bushes or trees. In contrast to a beaver’s lodge, there is often no structure below the water. Muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes in the water. Unlike the beaver though, the muskrat does not store food for the winter. They need to eat fresh plants every day and maintain a home range of less than one mile from their push-up. Muskrats can breed any time of the year and more than once with pregnancy lasting 25-30 days. The average litter size is four to six and kits are hairless, blind at birth and weigh less than one ounce each. Over time the youngsters are weaned from mother’s milk and often stay with their parents for a year, but when overcrowding develops, the parents, usually Mom, dramatically encourages her eldest members to move out and build a home of their own. An adult ranges in size from 10-14 inches in length and weighs two to three pounds. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and can stay under water for up to 15 minutes at a time. Their webbed hind feet, great for swimming, are much larger than the front five-toed feet used for digging and manipulating food. They are nocturnal, although often seen during daylight hours working on the house and spend most of their life in water. They are primarily plant eaters feeding on roots, shoots and leaves but will enjoy frogs, small fish, crayfish, mussels or clams if the opportunity presents itself.
I once read a story about a young muskrat found scratching at the back door of a nursing home in Ontario, Canada during a horrific snow and ice storm. One of the workers let her in and fashioned a warm kennel with food and a number of deep, functional water pans. The question of why she came to the door was never answered but a couple theories were; the weight of the snow collapsed the lodge or a predator, such as a wolf or mink, tried to dig in, but she was smart, lightning fast and escaped. Although the plan at the home was to release her back to the wild in the spring, last I heard, she is very content and lives with the residents still. Muskrats benefit many wetland species by creating open water areas for waterfowl and are an excellent indicator of environmental quality. Gotta love ‘em! I know I do!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All” (which is now available as an ebook on Amazon)