Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 5, 2013

Leave it to Castor – Part II: Look Ma I’m Walking

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:47 pm

In spite of their novel urban setting, the Conners Creek beavers behaved as if they were in the middle of the Canadian wilderness (as far as I know). The label “Urban Beaver,” while potentially evoking images of street-wise rodents picking up fresh bark peelings from the Eastern Market or eating left-over shish kabob sticks in Greektown, is meaningless.  I assume wild Canadian Beavers carry mud to their lodges, store cuttings underwater, and slap out warnings just like the Beavers I observed in the “D”.  These were beavers – neither urban nor rural – just beavers doing their thing.

I didn’t expect the beavers to be active after the arrival of daylight so I arrived well before sunrise on my first visit. The spot-lighted stacks of the Conners Creek Power Plant glowed like two tremendous light sabers and cast a bright refection on the canal next to the lodge. As expected, I soon spotted shady forms moving about in the light-sparkled water and was excited to “see” them coming and going. As the sun rose I could actually “see” these creatures.  Since they could now see me as well, I expected they would start to get shy. I could not have been more wrong.

As if on cue, waiting until it was light enough for me to take some videos, one of them emerged out of the water with a stick in his mouth and carefully placed it. The event had an OCD component to it. After returning to the water the same animal re-emerged at the base of the lodge carrying an armload of mud. It walked upright like a small human and plodded up the slope with its cargo held tightly under the chin with the front legs. It dumped the load with workmanlike precision, pushed the wet pile into place, turned around, and walked on all fours back to the water.  Several other loads, similarly delivered on two legs, transported a load of water plants and a mixture of mud and sticks.

A written description can hardly capture this most amazing of beaver behaviors, so I have included a video. There is no soundtrack, but you can include your own mental version of “Whistle While You Work” for effect.  In 1698 a mapmaker by the name of Nicholas De Fer presented a largely imaginary scene of a colony of beavers working on a dam. He showed a line of beavers walking upright with bundles of sticks in their hands like so many merry elves. It looks comical by today’s standards but, apart from the details (like carrying bundles over one shoulder and walking in a line) this part of De Fer’s image is remarkably correct.

De Fer, in that same engraving, also shows beavers carrying rocks on their tails but we’ll have to ignore that one. Beavers do not drag materials in that manner.  Speaking of tails, however, you’ll note that the beaver shown in my pictures had a large notch in its appendage which made it easy to identify. This was the only individual which performed lodge duty. Perhaps it was a union thing?

Old “Notch” then demonstrated how to drag a tree into the water. After dumping the last load of water plants he walked over the top of the lodge and latched onto the trunk of a small freshly downed Cottonwood. Gripping it near the cut end with his powerful jaws he dragged it down the sloping face and into the canal.  Finally he dove, taking the entire tree with him, and wedged the trunk into the canal bottom adjacent to the lodge.

If this were a PBS nature show, the accented voice of the narrator would explain that “Like all beavers, Notch was building up a food supply for the winter by creating an underwater stockpile of branches. Beavers don’t eat wood; they are bark eaters which will depend on this supply to get them through the long northern winters.”  Of course, they would then show an underwater view of the beaver placing the branch into the food cache. I was not able to do that because my camera is not cleared for water duty, but you can imagine that part when you view my video.

Our imaginary accented narrator would have brought up an important point, however. Beavers chew wood in order to fell trees. They do not eat it. Those trees with non-palatable bark are used to build dams and lodges. Willows, poplars and cottonwoods – trees with tasty bark – are neatly cleaned of their bark before they are used for building. There was plenty of evidence about the Conners Creek lodge for both activities. A hungry beaver can strip off the bark layer of a branch with incredible precision.

My next visit to the Conner Creek Castor Casa revealed even more fascinating details of beaver life and I’ll cover that in Part III (Return of the Castor). Fortunately, upon learning that these critters were not night owls, I was able to sleep in before embarking on my next visit. That was a slight beaver joke, by the way: embark as in bark as in not that funny but still a good way to end a piece. Perhaps if I had stated that with a slight English accent it wood have gone over better.

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