A Look At Beavers

The other day, coming back from Fresno on Highway 41, about .6 mile south of the Bates Station Road turnout just below the 1000 foot elevation sign (see map), I saw a strange dead animal on the side of the road. This is open range country, with almost no homes around, mostly just grazing land, near the old town of Bates Station (description here, photo here). The terrain is Blue Oak Woodland.
I’ve seen some other strange animals road-killed in the same area – a badger a few years ago. Badgers are about as common in this part of Madera County as they are anywhere in California. Anyway, being an amateur naturalist, I got out and pulled over. It was a dead beaver, by the side of the highway! If you look at the photo of the terrain, it’s not exactly the place you would expect to find beavers.
I’ve never seen a beaver up close before, and the size of it shocked me. These things are huge, and they are very fat. And the paddle is very large. I looked down and saw a small stream flowing under the highway (see the stream on the map here). The stream isn’t large at all, and I would say that that beaver was wider than the damned stream, so it didn’t make sense that it was living in the stream.
Then I looked across the highway and saw a lake on a dammed part of the stream. I don’t know if the beavers created that dam or what, but that beaver was obviously living in that lake. What’s weird is why would a beaver try to cross a highway, much less 100 yards away from the pond where it lives. Well, these things do range up 1/4 mile away from their pond, but almost always at night.
Why wander away? Probably looking for trees to chop down. Beavers chop down trees, to eat the bark, leaves and twigs and to use the wood to make their dams and the wooden lodges where they live. They also feed on water plants like cattails, reeds and pond lilies.
A beaver is basically just a gigantic rat. That’s all it is. But rats are smarter than you think they are. Rats are quite intelligent for what they are, rodents. And the beaver is extremely smart, albeit in a rodent sort of way. First of all, its lodges are so expertly made that no predator, not even a wolverine, can get into them, and a wolverine can get into about anything less secure than a locked bank vault.
And I’m not sure if this is urban legend, but water engineers supposedly marvel at beaver dams. They look at them and say, “I can’t believe they did that.” The beaver is an expert at his dam-building. Experiments have been done by poking tiny holes in the dams, holes that would be hard to find or even discover that they existed. By nightfall, the beavers quickly discover the hole and patch it up.
Beavers are actually very beneficial, and ecosystems in North America and Europe probably evolved with them. It’s thought that much of the rich bottomland in the US was created in part by beavers over thousands of years. Beaver dams remove pollutants, clean the water, are good for flood control, and regulate the water cycle.
Here in California, that’s important. So streams and rivers here with beaver dams on them have lessened high flows in the rainy seasons (fewer floods) and increased flows in the dry season (more likely to flow all year instead of being seasonal as so many streams are here). After a few years, beavers abandon their dams as they cut down most of the small trees in the area.
After they leave, the dam breaks down and the area turns into a wetland. Then it turns into a meadow as grasses and forbs move in. Next it becomes a riverine riparian forest, by which time, the beavers are back and the cycle begins again. The result is a creation of a serious of rich bottomlands created by all of the decayed wood at the bottom of the beaver pond.
Beavers in the US and Canada were decimated by the fur trade for beaver pelts. I guess they are pretty easy to trap. The beaver pelts had many uses, but many were made into beaverskin hats.
In Europe, beavers were also trapped out, mostly for the camphor or camphorum, a medicine that comes from the beaver. This medicine comes from beaver testicles. The beaver is killed and the beaver balls are chopped off. Then the beaver nuts are dried and ground up into castoreum which is apparently consumed as a medicine. It ‘s used as an analgesic.
The castoreum comes from the salicin in the beaver’s diet, which comes from the willow trees that it eats. Salicylic acid from willows is the source of aspirin. There are two species of beaver, the Canada Beaver in the US and Canada and the European Beaver in Europe.
The paddle is used to slap the surface of the water to warn the other beavers of danger in the form of humans or predators. The beaver is not much active by day,  and it stays in the water if it is active. At night, it can leave water and wander. At this time it quite vulnerable to predators as it is slow-moving on land. Nevertheless, it is seldom taken by predators, and the beaver’s worst enemy is man.
Beavers are now plentiful all over the US and Canada again after being nearly trapped to extinction in the 19th Century.
They were transplanted to Tierra del Fuego, where they lacked predators and went invasive, devastating the landscape. The trees on the island do not coppice, so they can’t withstand the beavers’ depredations. Tierra del Fuego is now trying to get rid of its beavers.
In Europe, wild beaver populations still exist in Northern Germany and in parts of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. They survived only in Norway, but from there they were reintroduced to Sweden and Finland. The Danish population was reintroduced 10 years ago, 1000 years after their extinction. It is now being transplanted to various other places in Europe, including England (see here and here), 500 years after their extinction. There are plans to reintroduce beavers to Scotland this year, 400 years after going extinct.
As an aside, traditionally Catholics were not supposed to eat the meat of land animals on Friday, so Catholics often ate fish instead. There was a big debate in the Catholic Church about beavers. This was resolved by the Church concluding that beavers were fish for the purposes of dietary law. Catholics are idiots, but they are not that stupid. They know full well that a beaver is not a fish. But for dietary law, a beaver was considered a “fish” because any land animal that spends most of its time in water was regarded as a fish.
Hence, Catholics could eat beaver on Fridays. I can see the dirty jokes now, commenters. Beaver, like skunk actually tastes pretty good if you clean it very carefully to keep the skunk-like musk gland from contaminating the meat. While skunk tastes like (Guess what?) chicken, beaver tastes like lean beef, but I’ve yet to take the plunge.
However, with Vatican II, I believe that Catholics no longer have to abstain from meat on Fridays?
Good overview of the beaver in California, but the map is wrong (the beaver ranges further than indicated).

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8 thoughts on “A Look At Beavers”

  1. Six years ago I was coming out of Kings canyon national park headed into fresno. I can’t remember what road it was. I saw a dead racoon on the side of the road. It looked like it just laid down to sleep, but I knew better. For some reason it profoundly disturbed me. It was one too many deaths for me.

  2. “Beavers”? How about a nice, detailed post about your personal experiences in the black school system?
    What’s wrong with you racists anyway? You guys have a one track mind. Can’t you think about anything else?

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