Out-Doors: Busy beavers

Busy beavers

Elizabeth Bassett | Contributor

If you’ve been paddling, sailing, swimming or motoring around Converse Bay of late, especially near dawn or dusk, you may have been splashed by the slapping tail of a beaver. The message: stay away from my food, my home and my family! During summer’s long days and short nights, beavers’ nocturnal work often spills over into daylight. Even if you don’t spot North America’s largest rodent, evidence of their labors is not hard to find.

In early July, a waterfront poplar on Deer Point toppled into the lake, its 12-inch trunk gnawed to a point in a mere two nights. A few weeks later a neighboring poplar crashed beside it. Both trees were soon denuded of limbs, leaves and bark, leaving two pale, telephone-pole-like stumps stretching toward the lake. So where, you might ask, did the rest of the trees go?

On a recent evening, Travis Titus, a keen spotter of wildlife, spied an adult beaver swimming toward a dock. “The beaver was towing a big branch covered with poplar leaves. As it swam beneath the dock we heard the ‘squeak, squeak, squeak’ of little beavers as they ate their supper!” Nearby, broken branches, leaves and pointed sticks littered the water.

Like all rodents, the beaver has incisors that never stop growing. If it doesn’t gnaw it will die as its teeth grow into the opposite jaw. Beavers prefer poplar, willow and birch to the harder oak and maple but will chisel the latter if softer trees are not available. Family groups work together, gnawing a groove around a trunk until it falls.

Beavers prefer running water. They drag downed trees to form a dam, packing it with mud and twigs. Water pools behind the dam creating a safe place for a lodge with underwater entrances where three generations of a family can live, safe from predators. In winter beavers swim and eat beneath the safety of the ice. A beaver may occasionally gnaw a hole in the ice near the dam allowing water to escape. With the lower water level beavers can enjoy meals at their raft of branches without returning to the lodge to breathe. The animals pass winter days grooming each other’s fur with special waterproofing oil. Invariably sediment fills their pond, turning it to swamp, and the beavers become vulnerable to predators. They swim upstream and repeat the building process.

Beavers have some interesting characteristics: lots of body fat for warmth, a nose and ears with special valves to keep water out, a special protective eyelid for seeing in water, and huge cheeks that close behind their teeth so they can work underwater without choking. Also, their five-fingered front feet are dexterous, like those of a raccoon, and the rear feet are webbed paddles for swimming. The leathery, flat oval tail is used as a balancing prop when gnawing, a sculling oar for swimming and a paddle for slapping the water to warn of danger.

Early Dutch settlers used pelts as currency, and beaver fur was a fashion statement in Europe for years. Trapped nearly to extinction, first in Europe and later in the United States, the rodents were endangered everywhere by the end of the 19th century. Beavers were later reintroduced and have successfully colonized in every state but Hawaii.

Vermont’s beaver population is healthy and growing. They are no longer endangered. Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department endeavors to maintain populations in balance with human needs. Annually the department collects information on beavers in all of Vermont’s watersheds. A trapping season runs from December 1 through February.

Think about launching your craft at the Converse Bay Access some evening. Snoop around the shoreline and watch the sunset over the Adirondacks. You may also get to watch the beavers frolic!