Creature Feature

The Playful American River Otter 

 By Wayne Bierbaum 

The neighborhood I live in has a community pier and I frequently go down there to watch the river wake up. After the weather gets cooler, I have the area to myself, except for the animals. 

For several years, a family of otters would fish and play along the shore. They would try to climb ladders, slide down the bank, play with the fish they caught and have wrestling matches in the water. The otters would disappear about half an hour after sunrise and when they were around I did my best to avoid them seeing me as they would disappear very quickly. If I moved too much or made a sound, one would grunt or make a barking sound and they would be gone. If they were suspicious, one would swim closer and do a periscope maneuver, elevating out of the water and then take off. 

The North American river otter has water repellent fur and long fish-finding whiskers. By using their long whiskers as sensors, feeding and traveling frequently takes place at night. Their main preference for food is fish but they also enjoy crayfish, frogs and salamanders. Their efficiency in finding that food allows them plenty of time for play. Otter slides can be found along popular parts of their habitat. Playing creates tight family units with occasional extended family members present. They have a large home range and will travel several miles in a day to look for new feeding grounds. 

American river otters are considered pretty common and semi-protected. In Maryland, they can be trapped with the required license and restrictions. 

Otters are active throughout the year, even in winter. Winter may be the worst season for otters. Icing over of the creeks and rivers is very stressful and can be the cause of significant mortality. I have not seen an otter in the South River since the cold spell in 2015. I did find otter tracks in the snow on the iced river in 2018; pier bubblers keep areas around piers unfrozen and the tracks clearly went from one pier to the next.  

Hopefully, a new group of otters will repopulate the area around my neighborhood. They are fun to watch.