You can’t go to any of our ponds here at Umstead without seeing signs of North America’s largest native rodent, the beaver. These signs can include their large tracks, downed trees, stripped limbs around their feeding areas, scent mounds, dams (there’s a 4000 ft. long one in New Hampshire), and trails that lead up to 100 yards from the water. Don’t bother looking for beaver lodges here at the park, because all of our beavers use bank lodges with underwater entrances.
The healthy population we have now is relatively recent as the beaver was trapped out of most of the East coast by 1900 to feed the fashion frenzy for beaver hats. Growing public concern for the decline of the beaver and other wildlife populations pushed recovery efforts that included live-trapping beavers and successfully reintroducing them into most of their former range. On a fun note; in some western states like Idaho, their reintroduction plans included parachuting beavers to the backcountry in boxes designed to break open upon impact. See the classic 1950 style documentary involving this here.
The Beaver is truly a marvel with its adaptations for aquatic life. Its head and nose are higher up on the skull than other mammals, so they can see and breathe at the surface of the water with minimal exposure. The nose and ears have membranes (think ear and nose plugs) that close off to prevent water entry. The eyes have clear nictitating membranes (think of built in goggles) that close over the eye when under water. Their hind feet are webbed (built in flippers) and it has lips behind its incisors, so it can carry sticks in its mouth without water going down the throat. The tail serves as a rudder (a built in paddle), as a warning device that slaps the water with incredible volume, and as fat storage for the winter. Trappers used to relish fried beaver tail back in the fur-bearing days. In the 17thcentury, the Catholic Church declared that the beaver was a fish due to the scales on its tail, which meant it could be on the menu during Lent. As for its diving ability, the beaver can stay under water for about 15 minutes and has been documented to swim about a half mile while underwater. This sounds like a long time, but one man just recently broke the human record by staying underwater for 24 minutes and three seconds.
Beavers are social animals consisting of a family unit: a male and female with offspring from two breeding seasons. At the end of the second year, mom and dad drive the two-year olds away, and they are homeless for a while until they find their own area. This is a very vulnerable time for these young beavers, and mortality is highest during this time. A beaver’s day, in general, seems to revolve around feeding, dam repair, and preparing to feed by cutting trees down or harvesting aquatic plants. Beavers can literally eat themselves out of house and home by harvesting all the suitable food from 300 to 600 feet from the water. They then abandon this area and usually move upstream or downstream.
To see these amazing animals at the park means putting in early morning and late evening hours.
The Umstead Coalition is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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