Little did I know when I wrote yesterday’s post about the silver lining of our low water levels that I would so quickly encounter another predator benefiting from the current drought. I have spent a considerable amount of time this summer watching three generations of beavers do their best to survive as their pond proceeded to diminish to the point of exposing one of their lodge entrances and confining them to an increasingly small body of water. The underwater entrances to a beaver lodge are vital to their protection, and predators are well aware of this.
Yesterday the importance of water as a protective barrier was made very clear to me when a coyote appeared on the opposite shore of the beaver pond from where I sat. It stood for several seconds exactly where the beavers leave the pond on their way to nearby woods to cut poplars and birches which they haul back to their pond to eat. A well-worn trail marks the spot. You could imagine the coyote, upon surveying the shallowness of the pond, telling itself to be patient, as better days were just around the corner.
Moments after the coyote left, the mother beaver got out of the pond precisely where the coyote had been standing and took a few steps before sniffing the ground and then the air (see insert). Being nocturnal, beavers have an acute sense of smell which they use for detecting danger, food and for communication with each other. It took mere seconds for the beaver to detect the scent of the coyote, at which point she turned and sought refuge in the dwindling amount of water remaining around her lodge. May the heavens open up soon.
One associates Beavers with a fairly strict diet of bark and twigs. While their winter diet consists primarily of woody plants, they consume a variety of herbaceous and aquatic plants (as well as woody) during the spring, summer and fall months. Shrubs and trees make up roughly half the spring and autumn requirements, but as little as 10% of the summer diet when herbaceous plants such as sedges and aquatic plants become available.
Recent observation of a local active Beaver pond revealed that Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana), Jewelweed/Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) and grasses are high on the list of preferred foods of one Beaver family during the summer, although woody plants such as poplars (Populus spp.) and Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) have also been consumed in fairly large quantities. All too soon Beavers in the Northeast will be limited to the bark of branches they’ve stored under the ice. Until this time, they take advantage of the accessibility of more easily digested herbaceous plants. (Thanks to the Shepards and Demonts for photo op.)
Under perfect conditions, with no predators, no deaths and abundant food, a pair of meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) could produce a million descendants in a single year. Because they are prey for nearly every meat-eating animal that exists, however, their population, while large, is nowhere near this.
Even though the number of meadow voles is relatively high and they are active day and night, year round, it is unusual to actually set eyes on one. What we do find, especially this time of year, are meadow vole signs in the snow: mazes of runways on the surface of the ground that are exposed as snow starts to melt, air-exchange holes originating in their tunnels and extending to the surface of the snow, tracks and entrance/exit holes to their tunnels.
The social behavior of meadow voles is about to undergo a seasonal change. During the winter, when they are not breeding, meadow voles are more social and commonly share their nests, probably to conserve heat. In another month, however, as breeding begins, females become fiercely territorial towards other females, and males are aggressively establishing dominance over each other. The peaceable subnivean meadow vole kingdom is about to come to an end. (Thanks to Susan and Dean Greenberg for photo op.)
Alas, yesterday’s Mystery Photo ‘twas not made by a squirrel loaded down with a bag of nuts, a guess hazarded by one reader, but, as most of you knew, it was created by a Porcupine, or Quill Pig (Erethizon dorsatum). A bit pigeon-toed, Porcupines walk with their feet pointed slightly inward, with their feet flat on the ground. Their pebbly soles rarely leave a distinctive pattern, and their toe pads are not usually evident, but under the right conditions, their nails do make an impression. Usually a Porcupine’s quill-laden tail is raised slightly as it moves, but occasionally it drags along the surface of the snow as the Porcupine walks, producing a broad band composed of very fine lines that weaves between the Porcupine’s tracks, as in yesterday’s photo.
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.
Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus), tiny mouse-like rodents, spend a majority of their time on the surface of the ground, particularly in moist fields filled with grasses and sedges. They have elaborate runways through the vegetation – well-worn trails about the width of a garden hose which they keep mowed down with their incisors. Latrines of small brownish-green pellets can be found intermittently along the trails.
Most meadow vole nests are constructed out of dried grasses, also on the surface of the ground, although they are sometimes built at the end of shallow burrows. When above ground, the nests are often located in the center of a grass tussock, where they are less apt to be flooded. When there is snow on the ground they are a bit easier to find, as the heat of the voles inside the nest melts away the snow, forming a chimney that sometimes reveals the nest below.
Rodents have two pairs of incisors that oppose each other; two in the front of the upper jaw and two in the front of the lower jaw. These four teeth never stop growing, and thus have to be constantly filed down. (Squirrel incisors grow about one-half inch a month.) While nipping herbaceous plants and cutting into bark help do this, it isn’t enough to significantly wear down the teeth. When mice, beavers, woodchucks and other rodents nip or gnaw food, they move their jaws in such a way that these two pairs of teeth grind against each other. Most rodents have hard orange enamel on the outer side of their incisors (woodchucks are our only rodent with white enamel), and softer dentine in the back. When the incisors grind against each other, the dentine wears away faster than the enamel, creating a sharp, chisel-shaped edge to the incisors. This, more than anything else, keeps the growth of rodent incisors under control, just as a nail file keeps our nails from getting too long.
If a rodent breaks an incisor, there is nothing to wear down the opposing incisor. The tooth opposite the missing incisor will continue to grow unchecked in a circle until it causes the death of the rodent, either by piercing its skull or by preventing the animal from being able to eat. In the pictured woodchuck skull, the lower left incisor has broken off, allowing the upper left incisor to grow through the woodchuck’s palate and into its brain.