The Story Of Wild Animals:
Story Of The Beaver
Story Of The Lion
Story Of The Elk
Story Of The Tiger.
Story Of The Mountain- Lion
Story Of The Camel
Story Of The Jaguar
Story Of The Buffalo.
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Story Of The Beaver
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"Working like a beaver" is a common expression and means exactly what it says, for there is no creature possessed of greater industry than this little fur-bearing animal found along the streams of North America and some of the larger European rivers such as the Rhone and Danube.
If men were like beavers everybody would have a house of his own built by himself.
The beaver's house, or "lodge," as it is called, is a hollow mound of sticks, mud and stones, forming a cave-like chamber. The floor is always above the water line and is made smooth and hard by mixing twigs with mud and beating them into a solid mass. The beaver builds his lodge on the bank of a stream, or on an island in the stream, with the entrance under the water. To prevent its freezing up in the winter he first builds a dam across the stream and deepens the water.
As beavers live together in what are called "towns," every inhabitant of the town assists in building the dam and keeping it in repair. With their strong, long, sharp, yellow teeth they cut down immense trees, and are so expert in this work that the trees always fall toward the dam. The branches of the trees are dragged to the stream and laid lengthwise in the current. Sometimes heavy stones are dropped on them to keep them in place.
Meanwhile other beavers roll heavy logs from the forest to the dam, pushing them over and over with their strong noses.
When possible the timber for the dam is cut "up stream" and floated down. Earth and stones carried by the beavers between their paws and chins are mixed in with the brush and logs, and last of all the dam receives a coat of mud, plastered on as neatly as if it were done by a skilled human being.
There is a popular belief that the beavers use their tails as trowels when performing this work and smoothing the floors of their lodges. This is all error. They use only their paws. The beaver's tail serves him only as a rudder when swimming and assist him in diving. He always slaps the water with his tail just before he dives, making a loud noise easily recognized by trappers. The "whack" of a beaver's tail against the water is also a note of alarm and warns his comrades of danger.
The height of the water in a beaver dam is regulated by an opening through which the surplus water escapes. If the beaver wishes to lower the water he enlarges the opening, and closes it when he wants the water to rise. The length of a beaver-dam may occasionally be as much as one hundred and fifty or two hundred yards, and their ponds may cover many acres. Frequently a formation of peat commences round the edges of the ponds, and this may extend over the whole area, converting it into a swampy tract known as a beaver-meadow. A considerable part of the city of Montreal is built upon such beaver-meadows.
The outside of a beaver lodge is plastered over as carefully as the dam.
After the walls of twigs, stones and mud have dried they resist all attempts of the beaver's worst enemy, the wolverine, to break through them, and in winter when they are frozen trappers find it hard work to make an opening in them, even with an axe. Every year a fresh coating of mud is put upon the lodges, and in a few years the walls attain several feet in thickness.
When the beavers have completed their dam and lodges they next provide a place of refuge to which they may escape in time of danger. This refuge consists of a secret chamber dug in the bank on the opposite side of the stream from the lodge. The entrance, of course, is under water and the burrows extend back and gradually slope upward for a distance of ten or fifteen feet. Above the water line a place is scooped out by the busy little paws large enough for an entire family of beavers. The upper part of the chamber is near the ground, usually under the roots of a large tree, where a few little holes that would not be noticed from outside afford ventilation.
It is hard work digging this secret chamber, for most of it is under water, and every few minutes the beavers have to come to the surface for air.
The lodges and secret chambers are then supplied with soft grasses for beds and sticks of birch and willow enveloped in the juicy bark which is the beaver's principal food. His delicacy, however, is the root of the yellow water lily which he finds in the bottom of his dam, even in winter when the surface is covered with ice.
Beavers work only at night, and rarely are seen during the day. Not-withstanding their industry they are fond of play, and will chase each other round and round in the water, pushing each other off of logs and indulging in swimming and diving races.
The beaver is trapped for his fur which is valuable and is used principally in the manufacture of winter garments. The fur consists of a fine wool mixed with long and stiff hairs. The hairs are useless but the fur is toothed on the surface and easily penetrates and fixes itself into the felt which forms the body of a hat.
Formerly the great demand for beaver fur was for the manufacture of hats, but silk has largely taken its place of late years.
The Hudson Bay Company, a great corporation formed for trapping fur-bearing animals for their skins, has greatly decreased the number of beavers and they are rapidly becoming extinct. The number of beaver-skins sold by the Hudson's Bay Company averages about 55,000 a year, while in the year 1743 upwards of 127,080 were imported into Rochelle alone. The price varied from $I.25 to $1.50 per skin. The incisor teeth of the beaver were used by the North American Indians, and also by some of the ancient inhabitants of the Old World, as cutting instruments, the bases being fixed into a wooden handle with the aid of twine or thongs.
The primitive form of trapping beavers was to cut holes in the ice around their lodges in which nets were placed and the lodges torn open. The white trappers then introduced steel traps, but it was a long time before a suitable bait could he found. Finally it was discovered that the beaver is fond of castoreum, a pungent drug made from castor, a waxy substance found in beavers' tails.
Unless the beaver is caught near the shoulder he will escape even from a trap of steel, by gnawing off his leg, especially if he be caught by the foreleg.
Beavers are characterized by their stout and heavy bodies, being most marked in the hinder quarters. The head is large and rounded, with short ears; and the tail is of moderate length, much flattened, and covered with a naked, scaly skin. The limbs are short, with five sharp-clawed toes on both the fore and hind-feet; all the toes of the hind-feet being connected by a web extending to the roots of the claws. There is an additional claw on the second toe of the hind-foot, probably used in dressing the fur. The portion of the muzzle surrounding the nostrils is naked, as are the soles of the feet, while the ears are scaly. Both the ears and the nostrils are capable of being closed. The fur is peculiarly thick and soft, its general color being reddish brown above, and grayer beneath. Occasionally a white beaver is met with, but they are very rare.
At the time of the discovery of America, the beaver of this continent had a wider distribution than any other mammal except the puma (mountain lion). Its range extended from Alaska and the Hudson's Bay district in the north, along the Atlantic seaboard as far south as Georgia and Northern Florida, and thence along the Gulf of Mexico as far as the Rio Grande in Texas, and also some distance into Mexico; while on the Pacific Coast it extended to California and Arizona.
The young, usually from three to four in a litter, are produced at the close of the winter or early in the spring, in the shelter of the burrow or lodge, but it is not yet ascertained whether they are born with their eyes open or closed. Beavers do not hibernate, in the strict sense of the term, although during the depth of the winter they sleep longer, and move about much less than at other times.
In summer beavers generally forsake the neighborhood of their lodges to travel up or down the stream; occasionally taking considerable journeys on land. With the advent of early autumn they return to their winter quarters, and at once set about the necessary repairs to the dam and lodges, and the collection of a supply of food for the winter.
The Hudson's Bay Company has wisely assigned certain islands in its territory as beaver-preserves, where a certain number of the animals are killed every third year only. It has been proposed to establish "beaver-ranches" in America, but the attempts hitherto made to domesticate these animals do not hold out much encouragement as to the success of the project. It is true that beavers live and become fairly tame in menageries (where, from their nocturnal habits, they are but rarely seen), but they rapidly deteriorate, losing the brilliant gloss of their coats, and acquiring dull, listless habits.
In the early days of the northwest beaver skins were the chief articles of traffic between the Indians and the traders. My father was a trader for the American Fur Company and I have often listened with wonder to his stories of adventure in going from one Indian village to another and exchanging a few glass beads and small quantities of powder and ball for valuable beaver skins.
The traders that made the greatest profit, however, out of beaver skin obtained from the Indians were those who traded whisky for skins. The whisky was nothing more than high-proof alcohol, which the trader diluted many times with water. Five dollars' worth of this stuff would procure many hundreds of dollars' worth of furs.
The traders often took desperate chances in dealing out this intoxicating poison to the red men, for the most peaceable Indians when sober were perfect demons when under the influence of liquor. But the old trappers were men who did not know the name of fear, and although they had many narrow escapes from the intoxicated savages very few of them lost their lives at the hands of the redskins.
This style of traffic was much more fatal to the Indians, for when an Indian had traded his beaver skins for the diluted alcohol, he almost invariably wound up his spree by beating or killing his wife or some other Indian with whom he may have had a previous call. To the pioneer traders must be charged much of the debasement of the Indian tribes of the Northwest territory through the use of liquor.
The Indians had a greater regard for the beaver than they did for any other fur-bearing animal, and although they hunted and trapped them and sold their skins for gew-gaws, baubles and firewater, the little animals were associated with many Indian traditions and legends.
The very large beavers inspired both reverence and fear in the hearts of some of the tribes. I remember having heard my father tell a story of an Indian who, accompanied one of his expeditions which illustrates the foregoing remark. The Indian was out quite late one night setting the traps. In order to get back to camp he had to row across a lake. When he arrived on the shore where my father had made camp he was badly frightened, and made no attempt to conceal his fear. When questioned, he said that out in the middle of the lake an enormous beaver had swum right by his canoe. He declared that it was as big as a deer and that it could swim as fast as an arrow could fly.
He was asked why he did not try to kill it, and frankly replied that he was afraid, because he believed that the spirit of Kitchi Manitou (the Indians' God) dwelt in all of these big beavers.
My father had no such superstitious fear, and he was rejoiced the next morning to find a beaver of tremendous size (although much smaller than the Indian had described) in one of the traps. He proved to be the father of a big beaver village nearby and his skin brought more than twice as much as that of an ordinary beaver.
Beaver skins were worth at that time about seven dollars a pound, and as each skin weighed something over two, pounds the trapper could average about fifteen dollars per skin.