My First Year with the Beavers

The American Beaver, our first ecologist, personal narrative

The morning my dad died I awakened from a dream that told me that my father had just become a beaver. A phone call confirmed his death minutes before. That previous spring I had fallen in love with beavers and had been struck by their incredibly industrious behavior. They were always working, and reminded me of my father who was then a retired aeronautical engineer who once built our house in his free time.

At the time I lived in a very isolated area where the beavers were active during the day as well as at dawn and dusk. Around dawn beginning in the spring I would take my coffee down to the edge of the pond to sit on a bench my father had built to watch the beavers begin their day. They had already felled the poplars and birch closest to the stream. Now beavers were climbing the hill to gnaw down larger trees. I marveled over how methodical they were. After the animals got used to me I examined the channels they dug at the edge of the stream. I watched them using muddy paws to dig up and remove the detritus. These waterways once completed, flooded immediately, making it easier for the beavers to get logs and branches to the water. It wasn’t until early summer that the two kits appeared following one parent or the other. The first time I saw a little brown head with two tiny white sticks in his mouth following an adult I could hardly believe it. Obviously, the little one had gnawed off the nourishing cambium for breakfast before swimming behind his parent to the dam that was about 40 feet across. I watched both deposit their sticks/logs in the sturdy structure before the little beaver disappeared.

 In the center of the pond there was a large domed stick house where the beavers lived. The chambers of this structure lay above the waterline; entrances were installed below for protection from predators and to make it easy for beavers to reach their stash of winter food. I couldn’t tell the difference between the sexes of the parents (later I learned that it is almost impossible to do so) but their devotion to each other and their children was obvious. There was also a third beaver who worked these waters, evidently an older sibling from last years litter? I couldn’t be sure.

 Although I couldn’t identify a beaver’s sex I always called one ‘he’ or ‘she’ never an “it”. I accord all animals sentience. Humans share about 60 percent of our DNA with beavers, so we are literal relatives. Using the pronouns of he or she allows beavers to be the unique creatures they are with their own attributes and abilities. This has absolutely nothing to do with anthropomorphizing which is what humans do when they attribute human-like characteristics to animals. This sentimentalizing of animals has nothing to do with who they are. Materialistic Science is allergic to values. Using the word “it” objectifies the animal making it easy to continue to use animals for human purposes while denying personhood, for lack of a better word. Two extremes; neither position allows an animal to be seen. With this much said, I find it fascinating that animal behavior often resembles that of humans, reinforcing the reality that humans and beavers are related.

My continuous presence seemed to intrigue the beaver family, and as long as I sat quietly on my bench one of the adults would approach me, occasionally coming so close I could almost touch the animal’s head. The mole brown fur was lush and shiny glowing burnt sienna in the evening light. One night around dusk an adult actually climbed out of the water to sit by me on my bench (sitting on one’s haunches with a flat tail balancing a rotund body seemed like quite a challenge). I was astonished and deeply moved by this act of trust. When the beaver slipped back into the water it was so dark I could barely see the animal’s V wake in the water.

 I investigated the dam on a regular basis often walking across it with ease. Now that the beavers were used to me I brought another bench down to sit at the opposite edge of the pond right next to the dam. The first time I wore a bug net the beavers revolted. The one closest to me slapped his tail and disappeared underwater the second he saw me. When the next beaver appeared I tried to reassure him with my voice (I often spoke to the ones that showed interest in me). Nothing worked.  One look at me in a bug net and a tail slapping disappearance occurred almost instantaneously! The beavers won. I gave up the bug net. One day I was startled by another commotion that turned out to be one of a family of otters that had moved in upstream from the dam, but that like the moose family that also inhabited this pond is another story.

From a distance a dam looks quite uncomplicated but seeing one close up reveals how intricately these dams are constructed. First logs are placed in a perpendicular position, driven into the mud. Crisscrossed in between are smaller branches. More branches are added until the desired water level is reached. Stones and old leaves are brought up from the bottom of the pond and the dam is always sealed with layers of mud. If there is even the smallest leak a beaver arrives instantly. The sound of even a little water running will galvanize a beaver into action, even during the winter. For this reason there is always an open space somewhere close to the dam so that in an emergency the beaver can emerge to repair the damage.

By early summer the adult beavers would approach me as I sat watching them, swim by, and then return to the channels to bring down another tree. Beavers move awkwardly on land. But gnawing down a poplar or maple was another matter entirely. I gazed at them in awe as they sat with their flat tails balancing their chunky bodies as they sunk their orange incisors into a tree. The three beavers felled trees towards the water, sometimes in a matter of hours. I never saw one get hurt by a falling tree although later I read that sometimes they do. Depending on the size of the logs the beavers either cut them up and hauled the pieces into the nearest channel or dragged a whole sapling into the water. Many branches were stripped before being cut up into sticks. Nourishing cambium sustained these workers who took turns felling the trees. Beavers have amazingly strong curved iron rich orange incisors that keep growing throughout a beaver’s lifetime.

By mid summer the two kits were following the adults to the channels almost every evening but neither had ever approached me, although by now all the adults had befriended me. One little fellow couldn’t decide if he could risk getting near me or not. He kept swimming towards me and then created a circle by swimming away. I sat statue-like on my bench hardly breathing, allowing bugs to drain me of a few pints of blood!  Finally this little beaver decided to climb up the bank next to me. What I remember most vividly was his beady black eyes staring at me with obvious curiosity; I was thrilled. He didn’t stay long, but this first visit was followed by others, and now both kits often approached me in the water although most of time they just swam around in front of me. When mid summer temperatures climbed too high in the afternoon the beavers disappeared for a few hours re appearing again around 5- 6 PM.

  Beginning in August I noticed a change in their behavior although the beavers continued to fell more trees. Large ungainly bristly branches with leaves sometimes seemed to be moving along in the water by invisible means. The beavers were starting to prepare for winter. Tree tops were being transported to the front of the dome shaped lodge where they would suddenly disappear under water! Although I couldn’t see what was going on I knew they were anchoring these branches and small trees to the bottom of the pond where they would stay until the water froze over completely. The kits didn’t participate in this diving process but one or two them would often follow an adult to the lodge. The kits were bigger now often shadowing an adult with small branches to help shore up the dam, or add to the lodge.

Fall brought more of the same food gathering activity, although the beavers were no longer as active all day long, and I no longer saw three adult beavers. I wondered if the older sibling had moved on to create his own dam somewhere else on this stream. There were plenty of good trees that lined this body of running water for miles, so food was abundant. I also knew that if these beavers met again they would recognize each other by scent. The bond of kinship is never broken.

I was already anticipating how much I would miss my friends when they entered their warm sleeping quarters in the lodge for the last time, and when November turned cold and ice covered the pond I somewhat reluctantly bid them goodbye. Beavers do not hibernate; however they rest during the winter usually only leaving their quarters for food or to defecate unless they hear water running.

I also walked over to the dam one last time to see if there had been any activity. The mud that the beavers had piled on top of both the dam and the lodge had frozen solid, and there was no sign of anyone. On my way back I counted twelve channels that led to the pond, all quite frozen.

One day I walked around on the hill above the pond that was quite open now, marveling over those lethal looking foot high tree spikes. Farther up I noticed there was one large poplar that a beaver had felled but for some reason, the tree had simply been left. The entire hill had piles of chips left around the gnawed stumps. The following spring this area exploded with blooming pink and white lady slippers that had been waiting in the wings for light.

In today’s world beavers are primarily considered pests. Roughly 20 plus thousand beavers are killed each year, a disgraceful number considering that these animals were our first ecologists. When colonists came to this country it was full of beavers who made sure there were adequate wetlands (“cradles of diversity”), bogs, ponds, and forested areas. Streams were stocked with millions of beaver dams; birds and all manner of wildlife. Fish, including salmon, were in great abundance. Beavers not only shaped this continent they altered the ecology of this land in ways that enriched it. When the demand for beaver pelts became fashionable so many were killed by trappers that the millions of beavers on this continent almost went extinct. As the beavers were extirpated in state after state the contours of the land changed in irreparable ways. Gone were the wetlands, gone were ponds, gone were the newly born forested areas that supported so many large animals. These marvelous engineers, our first ecologists who took care of the land, its animals, fish, and birds were absent, and what was left was rich soil to be mined by the colonists who farmed until they eventually ruined it.

 We are learning that beavers are a keystone species. With more weather extremes in the forecast for the future due to climate change and other human induced factors, it is time to support beaver restoration – not kill more beavers.

 Beaver ponds help slow down the flow of water, providing natural water storage and flood control. The ponds recharge groundwater, which keeps streams running when rain and snowmelt are scarce. Ponds also spread water across the floodplains so more green plants can grow to feed terrestrial wildlife and livestock.

Fish like trout and salmon thrive because beaver ponds diversify stream habitat and produce more aquatic plants and insects. Plus, the side channels, sloughs, and meanders created by dams add complexity to stream habitats, giving fish more places to hide, rest, or spawn.

 Culvert protecting flow devices have been around for more than 20 years. They work efficiently and yet the fish and wildlife organizations insist they don’t, although entire towns have been saved by these ‘beaver deceivers’. The excuse offered by fish and wildlife organizations is that more research/more data is needed. Meanwhile Vermont has installed more than two hundred flow devices since 2000 that have worked so well to deter beavers that success rate approaches 90 percent. Beaver deceivers are a non –lethal way to “manage” beavers when they become pests.

 Lest the reader believe I don’t know firsthand about beavers creating problems it is imperative that I finish my own story. I experienced both sides of having beavers as neighbors. The last year I lived in this area the beavers flooded the road so completely that it was impossible for a car to enter or leave the property. I attempted to let the water level drop by opening the dam each day, but every night the beavers rebuilt it. Desperate for a solution, I tried to find someone to live trap the beavers and move them to another area. I was unsuccessful. When I called the Environmental Protection Agency for help they told me that I had no choice. Shooting the beavers was the only option.

I have never recovered from this atrocity.

4 thoughts on “My First Year with the Beavers

    1. Tom they hate beavers here in Maine – this is why I wrote the story – it will be published here in Maine – it doesn’t help to educate – they won’t listen – I am appealing to land trusts – have sent article – 2 will publish it – beavers are incredible – we could learn so much from them if we paid attention

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  1. A little sorry your article ended on the tragic side for beavers, but I guess it’s understood that your knowledge of beaver mitigation strategies had not yet materialized when you had your flooding “emergency”, and officials you contacted were not forthcoming or ignorant of options. Luckily I am working with State Biologists and “fur bearing” animal managers who are engaged in promoting coexistence and mitigating strategies for conflicts such as high water level control (“beaver deceivers”) and culvert protection (“beaver bafflers”). There are still holdouts from failed attempts that believe nothing works because inferior designs failed too quickly. Slowly however more and more well made and installed structures are proving successful and the examples are becoming known! I have done several locally in Rumford, Greenwood, Pownal, Stoneham, Bridgton, Brunswick, and Berwick. Also been involved with several in N.H.

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    1. yes, at that time no beaver deceivers – but hopefully things are changing – I’m glad to hear that folks around here are turning to non – lethal ways of removing beavers – we need them!

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