My Fascination with the World’s Second Largest Rodent
Written by Alanna Burns, Illustration by Jaclyn Simon
My first beaver encounter happened nearly three years ago. I was standing on a foot bridge overlooking the duck pond at Jericho Beach Park, when I saw its head break the water as it swam towards me. Surprisingly elegant and larger than I thought it would be, it swam under the bridge below my feet and left me speechless in its wake. It was a summer evening, just before the sun set, and I can remember watching the swallows and bats fly around catching insects. I can remember the smell of barbeque from the beachgoers just a few metres away. All the sights and sounds you would expect at a beach in the summer. It was a moment I’ll never forget, made all the more special by the visit from what I now consider the world’s coolest rodent.
A little bit about Jericho Beach Park before we move on. The pond at the park was created in a naturally marshy area. Three creeks fed into the area, and it was surrounded by some of the largest conifers in the region at the time. The pond and surrounding habitat has changed significantly over the years, thanks in large part to the volunteers who regularly remove invasive plant species and help maintain the natural environment as best as they can. In 2004, the Jericho Stewardship Group was formed and the group remains active to this day. The park is considered one of the best places for birding in the Vancouver area and over 200 species of birds have been recorded throughout the year. In fact, the shoreline near Jericho Beach Park is a designated bird area (IBA). I always knew that the park was a special place and unique to the area. When you visit, you feel transported and it’s easy to lose yourself in the surrounding wildlife. There is an abundance of life all around, and it’s one of my favourite places to visit in the city. It was a most pleasant surprise to discover that beavers also inhabited the pond. It took years of visits to finally see them and what a discovery it was!
In all my visits, I had never seen them before. That night when I first saw the beaver, it felt like it was showing up just for me. I stood on that bridge until it was dark, watching it swim around collecting branches to bring back to its lodge, which turned out to be hidden in plain sight! Later that summer I would see it again, along with other members of its brood. In the spring I would see the kits (baby beavers!) swim around exploring their home and following their parents around. My curiosity about the beavers would bring me back to the pond time and time again to visit them and watch (from a respectful distance of course!) as they went about their lives. I’d watch as they munched on small trees near the shore and repaired their lodge. I also watched as other park goers walked by without even realising they were in the presence of one of the most important animals to our ecosystem.
If you are not sure what a beaver is, let me tell you. Beavers are the second largest living rodent species after capybaras and are found in the Northern Hemisphere. There are only two species of beaver – the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). My local beavers are North American beavers. Beavers require fresh water and find habitats in lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. They are herbivores, their diet consisting of tree bark, aquatic plants, and grasses. Beavers are nature’s engineers. They build dams and lodges, creating wetlands used by countless other species. Their infrastructure is a vital part of our ecosystem and because of this, they are what is referred to as a “keystone species.” A keystone species by definition are “those which have an extremely high impact on a particular ecosystem relative to its population.” A keystone species can be an animal, plant or microorganism. These ecosystems, without their keystone species, would cease to exist.
Beavers are fascinating, important creatures. Sadly, they weren’t always recognized as such. Historically, they were hunted to near extinction for their fur, meat, and castoreum and in a modern world where humans continue to encroach on their natural habitats, they are often considered a nuisance when in reality they are more important than most people realise.
While tricky at times, humans and beavers can coexist peacefully, but it involves a lot of effort. Beavers, if left to their own devices, can quite literally change the landscape they inhabit. A wetland can be created virtually overnight, and if this occurs in an area close to the human population it can wreak havoc on our infrastructure. Fortunately, in some cities, people have finally realised that beavers aren’t the bad guy. Technology has been developed to allow beavers to leave near populated areas without people even realising.
For example, the airport in Vancouver is built on a wetland. The airport is located on Sea Island, which is also home to a nature conservation area. Beavers also call Sea Island home, but to allow the relationship between people and beaver to remain on good terms, a piece of technology called a Beaver Baffler (one of many names), allows people to control the level of the water where the beaver lives, without the beaver realising. This means that the beavers can live undisturbed, despite being so close to a runway that they could easily flood if left alone to their own devices. The culver that the beavers call home is a lush, thriving ecosystem, home to many other species. A benefit that greatly outweighs the cost of finding a solution to being able to cohabit peacefully with one another.
A pair of beavers were also reintroduced to a pond in Olympic Village, located in the middle of a busy area of Vancouver where people live, work, and enjoy the nearby sea wall. These beavers are beloved by the community. They’re able to live peacefully in such a busy area, largely due to the technology that allows humans to monitor and control the water levels to avoid flooding. The pond they inhabit is a beautiful, peaceful place and home to many other species. It’s a thriving ecosystem, most likely unattainable in that area without the beavers.
Ever since that night when I saw my first beaver, I have developed a fascination with them. I love animals and I love to learn about them. I thought I knew beavers, but after spending time researching more about them, I realised I knew very little. There is still so much to discover and I hope that I’m able to spend more time with them. I find myself wanting to talk about beavers with everyone and share my knowledge with them. It’s joyful to learn about something that interests you for no other reason than it’s just fun to learn. My experience has inspired me to take a more active role in protecting beavers and the habitats in our city that support them.