We’ve watched birds dive, glide and wade in and along the French Broad and we will surely watch more but for now we would like to turn our attention to some of the furry critters that one may happen upon in and along the river.
The American beaver, Castor canadensis, was common along and in the rivers, streams, bogs, swamps and marshes of the Eastern United States before European settlement. But for trappers they were just swimming bundles of money – an easy target. Legend has it that the last native beaver in North Carolina was trapped in Stokes County in 1897.
The state of North Carolina, at the urging of trappers and other wildlife enthusiasts, began reintroducing the giant (35lbs.–55lbs.) rodent about 40 years later. In the absence of large predators like red wolves and cougars – and the presence of good habitat the beaver population rapidly expanded and they can now be found across the entire state.
This compact, rotund rodent is covered with luxuriant brown to black fur and can reach lengths of 2–3 feet plus another 12-18 inches of flat, hairless, paddle-shaped tail that propels them in the water and serves as an alarm. When a beaver feels threatened or senses danger it will slap the water with its tail creating a thwack that can be heard at great distances both above and beneath the surface of the water. Their hind feet are large, webbed and clawed. The front feet are smaller and not webbed. Its four large yellowish-orange, ever-growing and ever-sharpening incisors provide the perfect tools for felling trees for food and shelter. The beaver is awkward and clumsy on land but in the water – sublime.
That large flat tail is both paddle and rudder in the water making beavers powerful agile swimmers. Valves seal their ears and nose while underwater and a clear membrane closes over their eyes giving them built-in goggles. Their lips close behind those incisors allowing them to gnaw underwater. They can stay underwater for as long as 15 minutes.
The beaver is second only to Homo sapiens in its ability to manipulate its habitat. And as the Bard would say, “…therein lies the rub…” The beaver’s hard-wired penchant for damming running water can sometimes flood low-lying areas, both agricultural and residential. And its tree-felling abilities sometimes put it at odds with landscapers and/or timber concerns.
But this same penchant makes the beaver a keystone species and its dams create more, ever-decreasing, wetlands, boosting biodiversity by creating habitat for a host of critters – fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds (wading birds, waterfowl and others) and other mammals like river otters, muskrats and minks. Beaver ponds also help control erosion and sedimentation plus recharge groundwater resources.
Beavers live in these dams but in other situations like deeper lakes and larger rivers (like the French Broad) they build lodges and/or burrow into the banks. All beaver domiciles have underwater entrances that lead to dry
These nocturnal rodents mate for life. They live in colonies that include the adult pair, kits (newborn) and yearlings. The yearlings are driven away usually after a year or so and left to establish territories of their own. The size of the territory depends largely on suitable habitat and food supply and can range from a pond of a few acres to a half-mile or more of riverbank.
Next month we will talk about the river otter another semi-aquatic mammal that has made a comeback in the rivers of North Carolina.