March 1, 2012 —
A five-minute walk from The River Reporter office on Erie Avenue in Narrowsburg, NY leads to a site where a beaver has constructed a lodge from nature’s building supplies gathered along the banks of the Delaware River. Although ice has threatened the structure several times, the mild winter has largely left the water in a fluid state, allowing the mound of saplings, branches and brush to remain intact.
Appropriately labeled “nature’s engineers,” beavers are North America’s largest rodents, second only to South America’s capybara, one specimen of which actually lives in Milford, PA at Country Ark Farm.
One of the beaver’s most interesting features is its flat, scaly, shovel-like tail, which can be 15 inches long and up to seven inches wide. It stores fat in winter, serves as a rudder during swimming, helps regulate temperature, provides balance when the animal is transporting building materials and acts as a prop when the beaver is cutting down trees.
Beavers also use their tails to slap the surface of water to warn away potential predators. I’ve experienced this behavior repeatedly while paddling on Greeley Lake in Pike County, PA, where I’ve also observed beavers pluck lily pads from the lake’s surface, roll them into cigar-like tubes and munch their way to the end.
Aiding in their watery building endeavors, beavers can remain submerged for up to 15 minutes and have valves that close off their ears and nostrils, lips that close behind their incisors to allow for carrying branches and a clear membrane that protects their eyes.
According to Paul Rezendes in his highly informative “Tracking and the Art of Seeing,” beavers can also be extremely affectionate. “I have often seen them swimming in circles in one another’s arms, rubbing noses, or cozily munching on a communal twig,” he writes.