Castor the Canuck Makes a Comeback
Time was when you wouldn’t have given a beaver’s dam for his chance of survival, but our one-time national emblem is making a triumphant return
IT’S TIME we reinstated the beaver as Canada’s national emblem. He’s the guy who gave Canada its start, for it was beaver pelts that first put us on the map. And when we give his engineering genius a chance he conserves soil and water, halts floods and erosion.
Besides, if there’s any such creature as a typical Canadian the beaver is it. A cautious, hard-working, persevering pioneer, he was harnessing streams and taming forests quite a while before Columbus raised his loan. He’s a skilled craftsman, a hater of waste. And he is a peace-loving family man. His first desire is to be left alone in his own domain, yet when forced to fight he’s a tough and stubborn scrapper. He’s got more industry under his $50 hide than anything else that wears whiskers. He’s smart, too.
About a century ago the beaver was our recognized national emblem. Then trappers ganged up on him and most of Canada’s national emblems were turned into beaver hats. Canadians eventually awoke and wailed: “Hey, our national emblem
will soon be extinct, we need a new one.” So they left the vanishing beaver to the trappers, said henceforth they would do business under the sign of the maple leaf. They were playing safe—the maple leaf would never be extinct.
But old Castor canadensis (that’s the beaver), like the good Canadian he is, fought best when his back was to the wall. He staged a comeback that dumbfounded the forecasters of doom. And he’s still coming back, turning up every year in some new bailiwick where the fur-hat boys trapped him out years ago.
Next to the South American capybara the beaver is the world’s largest rodent. Males with middle-age paunches weigh 70 pounds, and that’s heavyweight class in the rodent tribe for the majority are featherweights like mice, rats and squirrels.
The beaver’s an overgrown water rat with teeth like chisels that can chew down trees. He sports a flat, hairless tail that looks like something between a doormat and a ping-pong bat. On land he uses it as a stool, in water it’s his rudder; but, despite all the tall tales, he never gets around to using it as a trowel, a mallet for driving stakes, or as a sled for carrying mud. The beaver is smart, but not that smart.
He spends most of his time in the water yet never catches cold because he has a waterproof suit of underwear—the thick, soft fur which lies under the outer coating of long, coarse guard-hairs.
That underwear made Canada. Europeans, disillusioned because America didn’t turn out to be a fabulous land of spices, were all set to give it back to the Indians when a couple of roustabouts named Radisson and Groseilliers turned up in London with a shipload of beaver pelts. They had trapped them in a God-forsaken spot called Hudson Bay. These pelts started the rush. As ivory led fortune
hunters into Africa beaver brought them flocking to America. They built trading posts, then towns. Some like John Jacob Astor got rich. Some lost everything, including their scalps.
For 150 years the standard of currency in Canada wasn’t money but the beaver skin. A pound of tobacco cost one beaver pelt, a gun cost 12. Canada’s first church, in Quebec, was built on contributions of beaver skins. Wars were fought over the beaver trade. One to two million pelts a year flowed across the Atlantic. No wonder the beaver almost gave up the ghost.
Around 1920 more than 200,000 beaver a year were still being trapped in Canada. By 1930 the take was down to 40,000 a year. Trapping was prohibited, preserves were set aside, animals were live-trapped and moved as breeding stock to other areas. But no one figured Castor stood a chance. He was doomed to go.
But Castor didn’t go. He was too intelligent and
adaptable; all he needed was a little assistance. He started to increase again and by 1947 Canada was trapping 130,000 beaver a year once more. Today in Canada only the mink is more valuable among wild fur bearers.
Last year conservation officer Sandy Ellis reported there were 300 beaver in York County, one of Canada’s most densely settled areas, many within 20 miles of Toronto. In May, 1948, a beaver was seen in Rideau Canal under the shadow of the Parliament Buildings at Ottawa.
Most of the credit for this comeback belongs to Castor’s own wits, his energy and his genius as an engineer.
C. L. Perrie, wild-life inspector at Sioux Lookout, Ont., was live-trapping beaver a few years ago to move them to another area, using a wire trap that snaps shut like a suitcase when the beaver gets inside. One trap in a beaver dam was sprung every night, but there was never a beaver in it. One night he hid nearby. A few hours later a large beaver swam up, pulled a stick out of the dam and, holding it in his mouth, began poking at the trap. Soon he hit the trigger, sprung the trap, then patched up the hole in the dam.
Perrie watched the beaver, presumably the same one, do it again and again on several nights afterward. He never did catch the beaver. Beavers have been known to steal these traps and incorporate them in their dams.
But Castor’s intelligence becomes sheer genius when faced with the complex engineering problems of water levels, pressures, dam building and canal digging. Many scientists claim he’s the smartest mammal next to man.
Castor is a clumsy lout on land; his legs are short and his big tail is always dragging like an anchor. However, in the water he can swim circles around anything except the otter. But, energetic as he is, he doesn’t depend on finding a safe water home ready-made; he digs in and makes his own.
With a keen eye for water level, rate of flow and heights of banks he surveys a stream and selects a spot where a dam will quickly produce a deep pond close to a stand of aspen or alder, the bark of which is his favorite food. He needs a couple of feet of water beneath the winter ice for food storage. And he never miscalculates always locates his dam where enclosing banks will hold a depth too great to freeze to the bottom.
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Sometimes beaver keep adding to their dam until they have a structure a quarter mile or more long. One beaver dam is 2,140 feet long, parts of it 23 feet wide at the base, 14 feet high.
Paws Dredge a Panama
Beaver select a stream’s most suitable dam site with a sureness that frequently astonishes human engineers.
In 1941 Manitoba planned an extensive program of stream improvement and game rehabilitation for the Lakes St. David and St. Patrick area. Engineers were sent in to select the best site for a dam to raise lake levels and increase muskrat populations.
After a week of lugging surveying instruments, measuring land and water levels and making exacting mathematical deductions, they staked out a site. Then they went back to Winnipeg to draw up blueprints.
In the meantime, as another feature of the fur rehabilitation program, six beaver were released in the same river system 65 miles away. The beaver also set out to find the best dam site. They traveled the 65 miles and chose the same site. They erected their dam just 20 feet from the engineers’ stakes, raised lake levels three feet, saved Manitoba $3,500.
But Castor’s great engineering ability is best shown in the canals he digs. Knowing he’s at a disadvantage on land he frequently dredges a canal to provide a protected water route down which he can tow his food branches to the home pond. Sometimes his canals are more than 700 feet long and contain crude locks which hold water at two, and occasionally three, different levels. They are two to four feet wide, contain water two feet or so deep. He does all the dredging with his front
Castor makes a thorough survey of land levels and auxiliary water sources before he starts a canal. When he has dug as far as he can at pond level, he leaves a small dam or lock gate, then digs on at a higher elevation, skilfully planning this upper lock so that it is supplied with water from a spring or stream above pond level. When towing food branches he portages over the dams which separate the different levels.
Grey Owl, widely known Canadian naturalist, told of one Northern Ontario beaver canal connecting a pond with a river at a lower level. Aspen, Castor’s favorite food tree, were plentiful along this lower river. But the beaver didn’t let their appetite warp their engineering know-how. To avoid draining the pond they left a couple of dams in their canal, allowed only enough water to leak through to keep the canal filled.
No other wild mammal goes to as much trouble in preparing its home. And no other clings to his family group as the beaver does.
Castor learned to defend his castle with a moat thousands of years before
His dam is an engineering masterpiece. He lays branches on the bottom, butt ends upstream, jabbing them into the mud or weighting them with rocks and sod. Stones too heavy to carry on land he rolls into the water. Last of all, he plasters the whole thing with mud and sod to make it watertight.
Castor doesn’t, however, fell trees across a stream in beginning a dam. He’s not as skilled a lumberjack as he is an engineer. When he chews down a tree he doesn’t know in what direction it is liable to fall. In fact, sometimes it falls on top of him.
primitive man had learned to go into a cave to get out of the rain. In the pond formed by their dam a pair of beaver erect their castle—a mound of sticks and mud, 10 or 20 feet in diameter and projecting two or three feet above" water. In the above-water portion a living chamber is hollowed out and two or three entrance burrows extend downward to open underwater. A few ventilation cracks are left in the roof.
Beaver are too active to snooze the winter away, as many of their rodent cousins do. Before freezeup they put in a stock of branches in a pond-bottom pantry near the lodge, then every day throughout the winter they go out under the ice and bring in a food log.
Castor’s a long-winded guy who has no fears of moving about under ice. He has learned a trick which permits him to swim under ice all day on one lungful of air. Castor knows his chemistry. He exhales to form a bubble under the ice, waits a few seconds while the bubble of exhaled carbon dioxide is purified by oxygen in the water, then breathes it back in again.
Beaver are good housekeepers. When his bed of shredded bark is soiled by muddy feet, hew bedding is brought in. Coming home he always stops at the entrance and combs excess mud and water from his fur with his paws.
Beaver mate for life, the youngsters stay at home until two years old. A family includes about eight young, four born each year. Two-year-olds are kicked out of the family home just before the third litter is born, but they usually remain in the same pond, building homes of their own and sharing the responsibility of keeping the dam in repair.
Like all babies young beaver (they’re called kittens) are anxious to try out their new teeth. In 1939 beaver were being live-trapped near Rupert House, on James Bay, for restocking other areas and Mrs. James Watt, wife of the factor, kept one kitten in the house as a pet. One evening after the Watts went to bed the baby discovered suddenly it possessed teeth. Next morning the Watt’s chairs and tables tilted at every angle. The beaver kitten had chewed off all the furniture legs. In disgrace it was shipped off that day with a load of beaver to restock Akimiski Island.
But the youngster was still excited about those new teeth. During the run to the island it chewed its way out of its crate and gnawed a hole through the bottom of the boat. First warning came when boatmen discovered their craft was sinking. They had to run the boat ashore.
Pippins for Eager Beavers
Castor, a perfect gentleman, minds his own business, knows it thoroughly. A vegetarian, he harms no other animal. Docile and gentle he shares toil and food with his neighbors; but, despite the involved community planning which must sometimes be necessary, they never appear to disagree over location of dams or canals.
Dan McCowan, Canadian naturalist, once watched two beaver swimming near Banff, one following the other The rear one frequently touched the leader’s tail with its nose. Once the rear beaver came abreast, bumped into a stone and fell back into the nose-totail position again. The head beaver led the other to shore, both began eating. McCowan walked toward them waving his arms. The leader turned, disappeared underwater; its companion kept right on munching reed. It was blind.
Beaver become tame when they know they are safe, are ferocious fighters when their lives are at stake. Near Aylmer, in southwestern Ontario, I have seen Fred White call in half a dozen beaver to the shore of a pond by banging noisily on a pail and shouting: “Come boys! Come boys! Dinner!” The beavers eat apples while spectators stand a few feet away.
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On the other hand, a Northern Ontario trapper once told me of a beaver that overturned his canoe and bit a big gash in his leather boot during a furious struggle before he killed it.
Beaver dams prevent floods, keep streams flowing all summer, stop tons of rich soil from being swept into lakes and the sea. I know a Southern Ontario farmer who 15 years ago complained bitterly because a beaver dam flooded a poor but usable four-acre field. After 10 years beavers had eaten all the available willow and poplar and moved on. The dam broke up, the pond drained. Over the semibarren pasture was now a deposit of several inches of rich black mucksoil which, if not stopped by the beaver dam, would have been carried into Lake Erie.
These fertile soil deposits, known as beaver meadows, were sought by pioneers. They didn’t require clearing, were ready for immediate cropping. Many of Canada’s finest celery and market-garden areas are ancient beaver meadows.
Fire rangers say beaver ponds have
saved Canada millions of dollars by providing handy water sources. They •attract many other forms of wild life, 'increase fish populations by stabilizing stream flow and by creating pools for spawning and wintering. When beaver disappeared from the James Bay area because of overtrapping around 1930, Indians were saved from starvation only by prompt assistance of the Federal Government. Otter and moose, the Indians’ major food supply, were dependent on beaver ponds—when the ponds went they went too. Muskrat disappeared. Until beaver were brought back James Bay area was barren of wild life.
CastorJWrecked a Train
Albertútóow has 10 government men trapping beaver in farming areas and movinglthem 200 miles or more westward. to the foothills where they are needed to control streams where lumJber has been cut off.
, ¡Saskatchewan moves about 100 beaver a year from the south to northern sections where they are raising water levels and providing nesting sites for waterfowl. A Saskatchewan game official states: “It would cost us
several hundred thousand dollars to build the dams that beaver have erected during the past 10 years.’k
The fame of Castor canadensis as a conservationist has spread far. In
1946 a plane took off from Montreal for Argentina with 20 beaver needed to improve some Argentine streams.
But Castor doesn’t spend all his time working wonders for man’s benefit. Sometimes he floods highways and railways, cuts down orchards. Near Foleyet, in Northern Ontario, a serious train derailment was caused in
1947 by heavy flooding from an adjacent beaver dam.
Breaking holes in a beaver dam is wasted effort. The beaver will only repair it next night—and keep on repairing it.
W. J. Smith, a fruit grower of Oliver, B.C., installed a waterwheel in an abandoned beaver dam to irrigate his orchard. The beaver returned, decided that the splashing contraption had no business being in a perfectly good beaver dam. They pushed sticks between the spokes, stopped the wheel, plugged the sluiceway with mud. Every morning Smith cleaned it out, every night the beaver plugged it
This feud went on for five years— 1941 to 1946. During that time the beaver wrecked several waterwheels, almost made a nervous wreck of Smith. Suddenly they left of their own accord. Said Smith: “They weren’t discour-
aged; they had cut down all the trees and had no sticks left for jamming the waterwheel. They just ran out of ammunition.” -fa