Chapel Hill: Opinion

July 22, 2014

Mary Sonis: Meet the new Bolin Creek beavers

It has been eight years since I first observed the beavers that call Bolin Creek home. For six of those years, I observed a mated pair with all their tiny kits born each May, along with a variety of older siblings who acted as baby sitters for their younger siblings.

It has been eight years since I first observed the beavers that call Bolin Creek home. For six of those years, I observed a mated pair with all their tiny kits born each May, along with a variety of older siblings who acted as baby sitters for their younger siblings.

Last year, I experienced a major disappointment. The huge reddish male, and his beautiful black pelaged mate disappeared from the creek. I knew that the beavers moved their lodge about every other year, and that all three lodges had slowly moved downstream about 100 yards at a time, but I could not locate any of the family. The last known location was a very modest lodge, which I assumed to be a temporary location for a couple of the adolescent siblings. Summer is the best time to observe the Beavers, as they tend to be nocturnal, and with our long summer days, we have the opportunity to observe wildlife from 6 to 9 p.m.

This spring, I made the trek to the usual Bolin Creek location, and by some great stroke of luck, two new beavers have settled in where the old pair spent so many years. It is entirely possible that the remaining beavers are offspring of our much beloved pair, or they may be brand new occupants. There were no kits in May, and given the relatively small size of the new beavers, they simply may not be old enough to breed. So, it is time to observe a new family, and get to know the unique personalities that make these trips interesting.

The new couple look very much alike, and it is only by disposition that one can tell them apart. One beaver is both vocal, and shy. This beaver slapped a tail at my first visit: an alarm call that surprised me, in that the old pair was used to human presence, and went about their business when people observed them. When the youngster resurfaced, it whimpered in the small voice of a lonely puppy. Beaver No. 2 swam right up to the edge of the bank, and stared at me. Once it established that I was no more interesting than a rock, it exited the water, and in no particular hurry, settled down to graze and groom. I backed away to give the beaver a little more room.

It has been weeks now that I have been getting to know the new neighbors, and the shy beaver has yet to leave the water when I am present. When this beaver finds its partner, there is the whimpering mew and a request for some mutual grooming, which is always obliged. In eight years of observing these rodents, I have never seen one act of aggression. Very young kits receive immediate attention when they call, and tolerant older siblings allow the tiny ones to tag along in the water, often giving up the stick they are eating to share it with the kit. Males and females share in parenting responsibilities, and the male is never aggressive with the young.

Now that I have told you about their delightful dispositions, I will take a shot at a few of the myths about beavers, especially with regard to their status as “nuisance” wildlife.

• Beavers carry diseases like Giardia lamblia. Well, if they carry this disease, it is because we gave it to them by allowing sewage from livestock or humans to enter our waterways. In studies of beavers in remote, or isolated locations, the beavers are free of this parasite. You are more likely to contract the illness by sending your child to a daycare facility, than you are by walking near a creek.
• Beavers are destructive to vegetation. The beaver does not clean cut a forest. They selectively take down trees, eat the cambium, and leaves, and then use the wood broken down in smaller pieces to create lodges and dams. They can thin trees near water’s edge, but it is a selective process. Bolin Creek Beavers have a special fondness for invasive Privet, which could only be seen as beneficial to the ecology of the riparian zone.
• Beavers cause flooding. Yes they do! When the beaver dams a creek, the water before the dam forms a deep pond, which spreads out and overflows the banks of the creek. This is a great thing. Anything that slows the creek flow allows time for the water to settle and become cleaned in the wetland created by the beaver. This wetland attracts more wildlife, encouraging greater diversity of species. The slowing down of the creek prevents erosion of creek banks, and can prevent the disappearance of water from a creek in times of drought. Many scientists are now encouraging the reintroduction of beavers to western creeks where seasonal droughts have created wastelands where creeks once existed. Additionally, the canals that beavers excavate for easy land access provide further shallow areas for amphibian breeding.

So, when a paved road becomes flooded, locating a road too closely to a waterway causes the problem.

• Beavers use their tails to pat mud into place on their dams. No, they do not use their tails as trowels. The Beaver balances on land with the aid of the tail especially when standing more upright to reach higher vegetation. The tail acts as a rudder in the water, and sometimes the beaver will sit on its folded under tail as if it was a convenient mat. The tail is also thwacked down against the water to warn other beavers of danger.
• Beaver tail was consumed at medieval Lenten dinners because the beaver, spending most of its time in water, was considered almost a fish. True! What can I say? The middle Ages were never known for high- minded scientific rigor, and remembering the Friday night fish stick dinners that I endured as a child, I think they might have been on to something.

Beavers in the wild can have a life expectancy of about 24 years, so there is no way for me to know what became of our old friends on Bolin Creek. They may have moved to another location on the creek, or they may have passed, but the new residents are young and healthy, and I am hoping to spend many years photographing them on Bolin Creek. They pay no heed to the sound of runners or cyclists along the main trail, as the buffer of vegetation along the path has granted our wildlife a private zone of safety. Any summer evening, this hard-working pair can be seen at creek side. The sound of crunching wood will lead you to the newest members of Bolin Creek’s resident engineering crew.

Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at msonis@nc.rr.com

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