Burton on the Bay:
An Earth Day Lesson
From the Beavers that Stumped D.C.

Busy as a beaver

Dating to colonial times and probably the Indians long before then, humans have compared personal industry with the work ethic of our biggest rodent, which hit the news in Washington earlier this month.

You'd have thought the world was coming to an end. Busy flat-tailed beavers were chomping on the blooming cherry trees of the Tidal Basin.

Those beavers were only doing with their teeth what citizens were doing with axes and two-man saws more than a half century before, following Pearl Harbor.

Flag-wavers wanted to get rid of the Japanese gifts received by the Capital City years before. So self-anointed woodsmen went chopping and sawing.


Dam-able Beavers

When a colony of mom, pop and an offspring decided to build a dam, or perhaps just a hut, in the dark waters of the Tidal Basin of Fanny Foxxe and Wilbur Mills fame, Washingtonians went berserk.

It reminded me of my friend and long-time fishing companion Ebbie Smith of Prince Frederick, who a decade ago spent many sleepless nights trying to figure how to rid one of his favorite Calvert County farm ponds of a beaver colony thereabouts.

"It's ruining our fishing," Ebbie would say - though at the time he was reeling in another nice largemouth bass not far from where a few stumps revealed beaver chompings. To no avail, I'd argue the beavers were just living up to their reputation as wildlife's supreme engineers.


Old-Timers Bounce Back

Come to think of it, the beaver might just be a better hydraulic engineer than us. Beavers have been at it longer. Their survival depends on engineering.

A beaver den is a formidable and intricate maze of trees and branches, which predators can't get to unless they're willing to do a bit of skindiving. Yet I wonder why any adversary would want to challenge a 60-pound beaver; also its strong, flat tail.

The fish have nothing to worry about. Beavers don't eat fish; they're vegetarians.

In Maryland, the beaver has been around a long, long time. The fossilized remains of beavers - Casto caneadenis - have been discovered in Western Maryland's Cumberland Cave and are thought to date back to the Pleistocene period, during the Illinois Glaciation, which is longer back than even this old fossil can recall.

Old Department of Natural Resources literature informs me that in 1635, a description of Maryland fauna included the beaver, which soon thereafter became a valuable economic resource. Let us not forget that in much of the U.S. and Canada, the pursuit of beaver pelts greatly influenced the exploration and settlement thereabouts.

This, of course, led to the near demise of the beaver. Beaver trapping was profitable, and that in combination with development in the habitat of this wonderful creature almost wiped it out. Hereabouts, say 30 or 40 years ago, hardly any Marylanders - other than trappers looking for profit - realized we still had beavers among us.

But beavers are hardy creatures, also of ingenious ilk, and if survival meant learning to co-exist with humans, then so be it. The past couple of decades they have bounded back, even in busy places like Washington where beaver-like work ethic doesn't appear to be highly prized.

We now have beavers in every Maryland county, even the lower Eastern Shore, though they're not easily adaptable to marshes. Just about every suitable niche is occupied.

Trapping of them - banned for many years - has returned to Maryland, but more as a wildlife management tool than as a money-maker for those who tend traplines. Beaver pelts aren't worth much, what with all the fuss about fur. Thus the beaver really doesn't face many problems - except in the District.


Survival of the Fittest

Fear not for the beaver, even the three trapped in the District and relocated elsewhere. It will survive. As it will survive also in the Sawmill Creek sector of Glen Burnie in North County, where its busy teeth are creating swampy areas spreading to back lawns - much to the ire of residents thereabouts.

Nature abhors a vacuum; get rid of the current beaver colony, and another will move in. Remember that, you citizens of Washington and of Sawmill Creek.

I recall 20 years ago when I was writing about outdoors for the Baltimore Sun. The winter was severe, and early spring wasn't much better. To my desk came a letter from Emory Standiford expressing concern about how snow, ice and cold would affect the furbearers holed up in the reservoirs.

Like me, and unlike Ebbie, Mr. Standiford sometimes stopped fishing at Prettyboy to watch and photograph beavers. He was worried about their survival.

He didn't have to be. If any wildlife can survive wicked weather, it's the beaver, finest of North American furbearers. Beavers range as far north as trees grow. They survive the rigors of winter by preparing for it. Consider the beaver home, which is made of the same sticks, stones and mud used in creating their dams. The dens are roughly igloo-shaped and vary in size according to the number of inhabitants. They can be of 30 to 40 feet in circumference with numerous tunnels and chambers.

As fall approaches, beavers store green branches in mud below the frost line. They prefer smooth-barked trees, but can get by with just about any bark. They often fell a large tree so they can easily get to its tasty bark for their larder. At an average 35 to 45 pounds - a few get past 100 pounds - they eat a lot.

Beavers also need air, and they have it in their dens. In addition, their nostrils are situated such that if ice freezes far below their waterline, they can press their noses under the ice to breathe in the thin layer of air between water and ice.

They're excellent swimmers, moving along at a couple miles an hour thanks to webbed feet. And they use that big tail as a rudder. A large lung capacity allows them to swim underwater for 15 minutes or more.

Beavers mate for life. They are loving, attentive parents, and their kittens remain at home for about a year before being nudged by their mother to take off to places like the Tidal Basin to set up shop for themselves.

There aren't as many trees as there once were - and blame that on humans, not beavers. So the Tidal Basin with all its cherry trees was a natural for these adaptable, frolicsome creatures. But down Washington way, people prefer cherry trees.

| Issue 16 |

Volume VII Number 16
April 22-26, 1999
New Bay Times

| Homepage |
| Back to Archives |