Beavers in the Midst!
Aspen and I set out on a trail parallel to the Red Cedar River. The trail ran along the top of the river’s steep south bank, and we could see the water sliding by below. The woods were quiet that morning, and I was aware of the crunching of our feet on the snow-strewn oak leaf litter. Past a series of fallen trees, several standing trees stood out like sore thumbs. We left the path to investigate. Rings of bark about 2 feet wide, were missing from the trunks of these trees, leaving the light wood inside exposed. At the foot of the trees, we found piles of fragrant wood chips. Surely, signs of beaver activity! Nearby we saw more tell-tail beaver signs – stumps of saplings whittled to points and paths probably cleared by a wide dragging tail.
My mind raced, remembering an article celebrating the return of beavers to the Detroit River in 2013 (see https://detroit.cbslocal.com/2013/03/18/detroit-river-again-becoming-home-to-beaver/). Killed off by fur traders and industrial pollution, few beavers remained in southeast Michigan in the 1900s. I wondered how common they are now in Central Michigan. I felt excited and hopeful to know a family had moved to this section of the Red Cedar. I also wondered if they would be allowed to stay, for beavers are environmental engineers. Like human engineers, they alter the landscape significantly. Though their alterations can sometimes seem annoying and inconvenient to humans, they play an important role in creating a healthy habitat for themselves and other animals and plants, so much so that artificial beaver dams are used to restore habitats (see https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/beaver-dams-without-beavers-artificial-logjams-are-popular-controversial-restoration). I’m excited to witness how, over time, beavers might change this stretch of river habitat. I wonder if the striped trees will scar and survive or fall and create new ecological niches. I wonder what plants will grow where the saplings were.
That day I searched and searched for a lodge (ie beaver house) or a dam. One large mound on the river’s edge looked promising as a lodge, but I couldn’t be sure. As a curious kid, I had once rowed my dingy too close to a lodge. A beaver chased my boat all the way back to shore and scared the dickens out of me, so I knew better than to inspect the suspected lodge (Always give wildlife a wide berth!). I also didn’t spy a dam but will be on the lookout in the future.
As I scanned the area, I was impressed with the ability of these beavers to scale the river’s vertical banks and haul saplings down them. I wanted to hide and witness the beavers in action, but beavers are mostly nocturnal, engineers in the dark. I settled for picturing them with my mind’s eye, building by night and sleeping by day. I suspected they were somewhere close by, snug in their lodge as Aspen and I continued down the trail.
Coincidently I’ve been doing a bit of beaver research (see facts below), library- and email-style, about beavers for my upcoming picture book. It’s due out in Spring 2020 from Dawn Publications. Hint: Beaver tails are one of the 10 wild tails appearing in the book. If you’re eager to learn more about beavers and share a fun book with children ages about 5-9 check out Build, Beaver, Build by author Sandra Markle and illustrator Deborah Hocking (https://www.amazon.com/Build-Beaver-Longest-Millbrook-Picture/dp/1467749001.
A few beaver facts to chew on:
- Beavers are the largest rodents in North America, and the second largest rodents in the world – second to the capybara. The 2 extant species are the North American beaver and the Eurasian beaver.
- They communicate with vocalizations, scent marks, and tail slaps.
- They sport a waterproof coat that they maintain with oil from the castor sacs located near the base of the tail.
- Their evergreen orange incisors have a coating that protects the teeth as they chomp on tree bark and cambium – willow, maple, poplar, beech, birch alder and aspen are some of their favorites.
- They form monogamous pairs and live as families of up to 8 related individuals. The young from the previous year stay with the family, helping to rear the new kits, before striking out on their own. Lifespan in the wild varies between 10-20 years.
- They have big lungs and can dive for up to 15 min. Closable nostrils and ears keep water out, while a transparent membrane protects their eyes.
- Predators include coyotes, bears and bobcats, and man. They build dams to create deep pools of water to escape into.
- They rely of their strong sense of smell, probably more than sight and hearing.
Thank you for sharing in our nature experience. I’ll post again in March. Until then, happy hiking and dog walking to all! ~ Carolyn
(first and last images from pixabay.com. Others are ones I took. Last image is https://pixabay.com/photo-493798/)