WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
While the weather outside may be frightful, as the old saying goes, winter is one of the most exciting times to hike and explore. Winter adventures often lead to cool encounters and memorable discoveries in the “wilds” of Oakland County; especially near the shorelines of our lakes and marshes.
Your outdoor adventuring can be enhanced by slowing down, looking about, and listening to what Mother Nature is saying. Last week, a child asked me where all the animals go in winter. Today I’ll share the tale of two creatures that some incorrectly call cousins, but both went “mostly missing” at the dawn of winter — beavers and muskrats. We’ll start with a look at the largest rodent of Oakland County, the beaver!
Beavers (Castor canadensis) are not just the largest rodent of Oakland County. They are the largest rodent in the world, except for the capybara of South America. Although beaver are rarely seen in winter, they do not hibernate. They remain active all winter in their lodges, and when not in the lodge, they are swimming under ice, gathering caches of food they stored in the muddy bottom in late autumn. However, on sunny and relatively warm winter days, when ice is not present, they may come ashore briefly to look for more saplings.
Beavers do well in healthy wetland habitats of Oakland County, especially those protected by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, and our nature conservancies. As you read these words, beavers are cozy in their lodges, which are amazingly strong and well-designed homes that would pass the eagle-eye inspection of a skilled civil engineer. I would go so far to say that most beaver lodges are built fortresslike. During a winter storm, the lodges take on a special beauty, and heavy snowstorms can benefit the beavers. Additional snow on top of the lodge functions as insulation to keep heat in and plunging night temperatures out.
Beaver lodges are not just a random pile of sticks and mud. They are well-designed and constructed shelters, and the location where beavers give birth. By the time sugar maple leaves turn golden, a new beaver lodge may be five to six feet high and over twelve feet in diameter. The living chambers inside are cozy and are located above the water level, and lined with leaves and cattail stalks.
My wildlife biologist friends reminded me that lodges usually have two chambers. One chamber for entering and drying off, and a higher chamber for sleeping. I have a feeling if I foolishly swam underwater to the lodge entrance – I certainly could not and would not – my approach would be defended furiously. Beaver have long incisors and powerful jaws. Those facts make it easy to fell trees or deal with an intruder at the lodge, or if ambushed on shore while on a tree cutting mission.
Beavers are not aggressive toward humans. However, if a canoeist comes close to a swimming beaver, it usually whacks its tail sharply as a warning to others, and then dives down in escape and evade mode. I was thrilled to witness this act about four years ago while kayaking at Algoe Lake at the Ortonville State Recreation Area. I’ll have to go back to that rural state recreation area on the next sunny winter day and see if that lodge is still active. It’s usually easy to tell if a lodge is active, since freshly gnawed tree stumps are found on the shore, and sometimes, when ice is clear, gnawed logs can be floating under ice. A word of caution is needed here: No ice is safe ice and with our rapidly changing temperatures, I would not advise walking out on ice for a closer look at any lodge.
I’ve hiked with people who refer to beaver dams as beaver lodges and vise versa. To set the record straight, beavers always live in lodges, but do not always build a dam. Dams are only constructed when necessary, in order to raise the water level sufficiently to give easier access to trees, and to protect the lodge from terrestrial predators. Beavers are generally safe in their lodges, but on shore, young beavers may fall prey to predators. In the Upper Peninsula, wolves will ambush a beaver that’s downing a tree near the shoreline. In Oakland County, a coyote might kill and eat a young beaver, but our beavers are more likely to be victims of direct human interference, usually by being trapped, destruction of habitat, or by being hit by a car while exploring for new territory.
One of my favorite beaver lodges is tucked away in the shallows of Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks County Park, behind a trailside bluff. That site is ideal. Fresh snow adds to the lodge’s eye-catching beauty, as well as adding insulation to their homes. On the next snowy day, I may don my snowshoes to take a closer look at a different, well-hidden beaver lodge at Highland Oaks County Park, or perhaps just explore good beaver habitat at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area.
Keep your eye out for beaver lodges as you’re hiking throughout our county! Want to know more about beavers? This excellent site from the Canadian Wildlife Federation is accurate, exciting, and illustrated.
If I don’t notice a beaver lodge on my winter meanderings, I almost certainly see multiple muskrat lodges. They are far more common, and multiple muskrat homes are often found in the same marsh. Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus), which are much smaller than beavers, are sometimes mistaken for them. Both species often live in the same watery habitats, and although both are rodents, they are only distantly related. Muskrats, much like beavers, do not hibernate during winter or store food in their lodges. Muskrats use their tails for propulsion in the water, but never slap their slender tails as a warning, which is something that beavers frequently do with their flat tails.
The Canadian Wildlife Federation writes that muskrats are “basically a large field mouse that has adapted to life in and around water.” I like that description. Muskrat watching can be exciting in these early days of February, as thin ice covers most of our marshes and wetlands. Occasionally, a muskrat may be spotted scurrying across the surface of the ice. This is also the time of the year muskrats are fine-tuning their pushup skills. Confused? Don’t be. It’s not military style pushups. A pushup is created by a muskrat pushing up vegetation into a mound, just before a solid winter freeze takes hold and creates thick ice. The pushup is a secure location for muskrats to catch a breath of fresh air while foraging under the ice for their next meal.
If you see something furry-looking and brown that’s scurrying rapidly on the edge of the ice in these early days of February, it will most likely be a muskrat, unless of course it’s a groundhog that stayed out late after celebrating Groundhog Day on February 2.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.
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2 thoughts on “Where Did They Go? A Tale of Two Creatures ”
What a wonderful blog of one of my favorite mammals, the beaver. The truly are an amazing mammal that works constantly. Our lake, Whipple, is a sister lake to Crooked Lake and Upper Bushman, all part of the source of the Clinton River system. Beaver are working tirelessly to control our lake levels with dams to support their lodging needs and maintain our water levels. Thanks guys and thanks Jonathan for the wonderful blog.
I will pass your kind words on to the beavers come spring the next time I see one along the shoreline in the dawn’s early light. And as you and I both know; they are a keystone species that creates habitat and controls water levels. Beavers are very much at home in our watershed.