Although most of the Northeast is snow-free, parts of northern New England still have a while to go before bare ground is visible. Most beaver ponds, however, are open and the beavers have been taking advantage of their ability to access fresh food after a long winter of water-logged woody plants. While this particular beaver is dining on bark, most beavers head for any green plants, buds, grasses, etc. that are poking their heads above the ground. A particular beaver delicacy this time of year are the leaves and blossoms of skunk cabbage.
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The lazy, hazy days of summer are dwindling, and beavers’ internal clocks are telling them it’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare for several months of life below the ice. This entails adding a significant amount of mud to the outside of their lodge. The mud freezes and creates an impenetrable barrier between them and predators such as coyotes that, thanks to ponds being frozen, will have access to beaver lodges. This mud is anchored by the addition of debarked branches and logs that have provided the beavers with meals of cambium during the summer.
A beaver can transport its own weight in material (roughly 45-60 pounds). Retrieving debarked pieces of wood in many cases involves carrying them over both land and water, using only jaws and sometimes a shoulder for support. A beaver’s short, muscular neck and its powerful lower jaw muscles make this possible. Try lifting one of the larger logs on a lodge or beaver dam sometime. Then imagine carrying it any distance in your mouth with no assistance from your hands. (This feat rivals that of a moose carrying two 25 – 30 pound antlers around for several months.) While there are recorded cases of beavers felling trees 150 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter, logs of this size are not used as building material for dams and lodges, but rather the bark and upper branches provide them with food. (Thanks to Roger and Eleanor Shepard and Sara and Warren Demont for photo op.)
With peepers peeping and pussy willows starting to poke their heads out of local willows in mid- late December, it is clear that in the coming years humans will need to adapt to the effects of climate change. Help with that mission may come from many sources, including beavers, whose landscape alterations have been shown to mitigate many of the more extreme conditions caused by climate change. “ Where beaver dams are persistent, they may sequester sediment and create wet meadows that can moderate floods, augment early summer baseflows, sequester carbon in soils and standing biomass, decrease ecological problems posed by earlier spring stream recession, and potentially help cool early summer and post-wildfire stream temperatures. “ (Jeff Baldwin, California Fish & Game) How fortunate that silk hats became fashionable in the early 1800’s, decreasing the demand for beaver pelts and rescuing beavers from extinction.
Beavers are meticulous housekeepers, in that they almost always defecate in the water, not in their lodge, and rarely on land. Because of this, it is rare to see their scat, but fall is as good a time as any to look for it (should you wish to see it).
In preparation for winter, beavers are repairing their dams and lodges, and stock-piling a winter food supply pile of branches in the pond near their lodge. They spend a lot of time working in the water in one area, which means that signs of their presence, including scat, are plentiful in these areas. If you look in the water along a beaver dam at this time of year, it’s highly likely that you will find light-colored, kumquat-size pellets, which, as you might expect, are full of tiny bits of woody fiber. The pellets are essentially little balls of sawdust, and disintegrate easily. (Handling, for those tempted to do so, is discouraged due to giardia or “beaver fever.”)
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