A few mornings ago, I was chatting with my best friend over coffee in my kitchen. Suddenly, I looked out the glass doors to see something in the lake. I rushed over to the glass door and pressed my face up against the glass. I asked my friend, “What is that thing?” He said that he thought it looked like a beaver. The second the word “beaver” left his lips, I was frantically flying around the house carelessly spilling coffee everywhere. “Where are my shoes? Grab my camera! Hurry, he’s swimming away!” I ran out of the house with mismatched shoes and a mysteriously empty coffee cup. The beaver swam right by me and continued up the lake. I ran down the road and crept through some tall grass to watch him (or her) swim by again and climb out of the water. I was surprised at how big the beaver was; it looked to be about 40 pounds. The beaver slid back into the water and continued to swim into a marshy area. I headed home, absolutely thrilled with this wildlife encounter.

I had never seen a wild beaver that close. These massive rodents are the New York state mammal, and were once nearly hunted to extinction. Their pelts and fur were in popular demand and were used to make hats. These animals are still trapped for their fur, but not as much as they were in the past. Some people hate having beavers as neighbors. Their dams can create flooded areas, which are great for beavers, but not always as welcome in the eyes of the landowner.

Beavers are large animals, with adults weighing in between 40 and 60 pounds. Beavers are excellent swimmers; their webbed feet help them move through the water. Those feet are attached to short, sturdy legs. These short legs make beavers awkward on land.

A common misconception about beavers is that they eat “wood.” A beaver does eat parts of trees, but they are more selective than most people think. Beavers prefer certain types of trees: cottonwoods, aspen, alder, birch, willow and dogwood are all favorites. Beavers will also eat other types of deciduous trees (trees with leaves, not needles), grasses, aquatic plants, shrubs and crops like corn or beans. Beavers specifically eat the inner bark, leaves and small twigs of trees; you can see this if you find beaver-chewed sticks. The bark and that green inner layer of bark are often chewed off, and the piece of wood can then be used as a building material. Coniferous trees (ones with needles) are sometimes eaten, but only rarely. These trees are more often used as building materials, or girdled and killed, which encourages the growth of trees that the beavers would prefer to eat.

Beavers have teeth that are always growing, and the fronts of their incisor teeth are stronger than the backs. Because of this, when the beavers chew, the backs of their teeth wear down faster, and this uneven wear shapes the beavers’ teeth into chisel shapes. This shape allows beavers to better cut through wood.

Beavers create a nest area; this may be a den dug into a nearby bank or the more familiar free-standing lodge. The lodges and bank dens have underwater openings and are used as a safe area in which to raise young, rest and spend the winter.

Beavers are nocturnal, so the one I saw was probably headed home to his or her lodge to sleep through the day. I’m thrilled to have spotted my new neighbor. If you’d like to spot a beaver, go to local ponds, marshes or lakes where there has been beaver activity. You’ll have the best luck at dawn or dusk, when they are on the move to or from their lodge.

Amy Barra is the environmental educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cayuga County.

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