Beaver Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

The species dossier idea came from my realization in the 1980’s that much of what I “knew” about wildlife came from the scientific and popular literature rather than personal experience. I went species by species, writing what I could remember about each one from memories of my own observations. Then I built the dossiers with added notes. The dossier begins with the initial paragraphs, followed by notes dated by a code that uses two-letter combinations to signify months.

Beaver

Beaver, Salt Creek at Fullersburg Woods

This aquatic rodent lives in ditches, rivers, and lakes. Observations to date have been in the Culver, Indiana, area (Maxinkuckee, Tippecanoe, Yellow River, Fish Hatchery), southern Ontario, and DuPage County, Illinois. The signs are seen much more often than the animals themselves; they are crepuscular/nocturnal for the most part, although the Canadian ones occasionally appeared in daytime, and I have seen them during the day in northern Lake Michigan and the West Branch of the DuPage River (mid-winter). Alarm signal: dives noisily, augmenting the splash with its flat tail.

Stand-alone lodge, Canada

They feed on bark and twigs of willow and other woody plants, storing large underwater piles of branches in fall for winter use. They also stripped bark from the 1-4″ diameter X 1-3′ long sticks used in building dams and lodges. The den can be in a bank or in a stand-alone built lodge. Bank dens are used in larger, deeper rivers and lakes, although built lodges also can be seen in such places. I have seen built lodges in Canada, Lake Maxinkuckee (Venetian Village), DuPage Co. (e.g., Churchill F.P.), Isle Royale. They have a distinctive appearance because of the white sticks, though some lodges on riverbanks are not rounded and so at first glance resemble piles of drift from the last flood. Mud also is used in construction. Lodges have been 8-15′ in diameter, 2-4′ high, usually on a bank.

Beaver dam, Tri-County State Park

Small streams may be dammed to create a pool (the most ambitious dam I’ve seen was on the West Branch of the DuPage River at Blackwell in mid-winter). Dams, like lodge coverings, are built of stripped sticks, mud, vegetation, usually have a slight U-shaped bend pointing downstream, and are not particularly high above the contained water level, though some on Isle Royale were taller than me on the downstream side. Very long dams can have a more sinuous shape; I’ve seen them more than 50′ long.

High beaver dam with trail, Canada

Beavers will carry branches from other bodies of water to the home pool. Cut trees are distinctive with large tooth marks and pointed (cone-shaped) ends. Beaver tracks are large, and have the rodent formula (4 toes front, 5 back), the webs of the hind feet not always making noticeable marks.

Beaver front footprint

31AU86. Beavers at Culver’s fish hatchery have reinforced the base of their dam with a heavy plastering of marl.

18DE86. Month-old beaver sign, Willowbrook Back 40: several black cherry trees had their bark chewed off on the stream side of the trunk. No others in the vicinity (willow, box elder) were damaged.

11JA87. At the mouth of Sawmill Creek, Waterfall Glen F.P., beavers this morning fed on bark of a box elder 7″ dbh, they had cut down earlier. They had made a trenchlike single path in 6″ snow between stream and trunk.

8MR87. 2 ash trees 8″dbh cut down but only some bark removed from trunk. Otherwise untouched, for months.

Beaver-felled tree, Fullersburg

28MR87. Beavers at Waterfall Glen cut three 8″ dbh bur oaks, ate much of the bark from 2 of them, in an area with much willow.

23JA88. McDowell F.P. Beavers built a long winding dam on Ferry Creek, 20-30 yards long

15MR90. McDowell. Beavers were active in the evening dark during my night hike program. We heard one chewing: identical to the sound of a squirrel gnawing a nut, and as rapid, but much louder. Several of us shined lights on it. It was on the opposite side of the river, standing up on its hind feet, against the tree. After at least 30 seconds of being illuminated, it abruptly ran into the river. It swam for another 20-30 seconds, still in lights, then walked up the bank back to the same tree, and resumed gnawing. The alarm splash is like a big rock being thrown in. I didn’t detect a tail slapping component.

13NO99. A beaver dam has been built across the very low West Branch of the DuPage River, Elsen’s Hill at the eastern horse ford.

29MR00. While running past the borrow pit at McDowell Grove Forest Preserve, I frightened a beaver into the water. It swam under the surface for 20 feet or so, a stream of bubbles revealing its position, then surfaced. Immediately it dove again, but as it did so I saw it deliberately lift its tail and slap it on the water. I could detect the sound of it, but the splash made by the posterior part of the body (spread feet?) was the louder sound. Perhaps the double sound makes it a communication for beavers, to distinguish it from other splashes.

11MR01. A beaver lodge is on the shore of the old gravel pit on Timber Ridge Forest Preserve (at the intersection of County Farm and Geneva Roads). There has been much recent gnawing of nearby woody plants.

8AP01. At around 8:30 a.m. at Red Oak Nature Center I heard a gnawing sound down near the edge of the Fox River. It was a beaver, sitting in the shallow water and feeding on the twigs of a shrub or small tree overhanging the river (intervening brush too thick to get an ID of the plant). The beaver was reaching up, biting off a branch, then consuming the twig. Less than about 3/16″ in diameter, the twig was consumed by the beaver holding it like a piece of stick candy and nibbling on it with gnawing sounds reminiscent of a squirrel working on a nut but more rapid. After 2-3 seconds of biting off the end, the beaver chewed with its molars for a few seconds, swallowed, then worked on the end some more. When the diameter of the remaining twig became greater, approaching 1/4″, the beaver turned it sideways (always holding it in the front feet) and quickly stripped off the bark.

22OC01. Beavers have been very busy in recent days at the marsh beside South Blackwell’s Heron Trail (marsh full of water thanks to heavy rains in recent weeks). They have trampled a path through the cattails all the way to Heron Trail, and have been cutting the small willows and cottonwoods into pieces, eating the bark from some of the bigger chunks, and hauling the tops into the water (drag marks visible in the mud).

6JL07. Fullersburg. A beaver swimming up the main channel along Sycamore Peninsula went to the shore at 8:30 a.m. and ate some root bark and twig bark from American elms. It continued upstream past the Visitor Center.

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1 Comment

  1. kattalina said,

    November 15, 2012 at 9:42 am

    there are beavers in cook county too. there is a little waterway/creek at Pleasure Lake in palos hills, 107th and roberts road. I couldn’t get a pic bc the beaver was too fast. but I did see a little dam built.


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