The period of high water in the Adirondacks from frequent spring rains and snow melt typically corresponds with the time when maturing beavers travel. As is the case with all forms of wildlife, when young begin to transition into adults, they experience a strong urge to vacate their parents’ territory and look for a suitable spot some distance away that they can claim as their own.
The natural tendency of maturing young to disperse well away from their parent’s territory allows for the healthy spread of genetic information among a particular species. If offspring were to remain nearby, there would eventually be an increased risk of inbreeding. Individuals produced from parents that come from the same blood line have a greater chance of displaying unwanted traits that would reduce their chances for survival. Because of this, nature promotes in maturing adults the desire to disperse far enough away from their natal home so as to prevent the likelihood of two closely related individuals encountering one another and interacting as breeding partners.
For the beaver, sexual maturity occurs just prior to the age of two, which is shortly before the adult female in the colony gives birth to her yearly litter of kits. It is these beavers that are most likely to venture far and wide during mid April in the Adirondacks.
Traveling well outside their parent’s territory is a real challenge for a young adult beaver in the Park. There is currently a relatively high population of these flat-tailed rodents within the Blue Line and vacant waterways that contain an adequate supply of food are difficult to find.
Upon encountering a stretch of water with an aggressive resident adult that refuses to allow an outside beaver to trespass, a wandering individual is occasionally forced to travel overland in its journey to find a suitable, unoccupied body of water. A beaver in search of a territory will also exit the safety of the water should it encounter an impassible obstacle, such as a dam, a waterfall, or a series of rapids in which the current is just too swift and the turbulence too severe to continue moving through the water.
The unusual tendency of a beaver to venture across land in mid-April may be noted by the occasional dead beaver alongside a stretch of highway that is a fair distance from any body of water. Noting the presence of roadkill may seem to be a gruesome way of assessing the habits of certain forms of wildlife, however, it can sometimes be useful in gaining insight into the lives of certain types of animals.
Along with the two year olds, older adult beavers occasionally abandon their home pond when the supply of edible vegetation along the shore, and a short distance inland, become exhausted. After the ice melts and the beavers can again gain access to the shoreline, they may realize that almost every shrub, sapling and tree that is of nutritional value to them has already been cut.
In such situations, the entire family relocates to another stretch of the same waterway where the vegetation is more favorable to them. However, when a family moves, it rarely travels over land; rather it typically remains on the same general drainage system.
The maturing forests in the Adirondacks have created shorelines that are very picturesque from a human perspective; however, such stands of timber are of very little value to the beaver. This gnawing rodent has a distinct preference for the bark of aspen and white birch which thrive in open, sunny locations. The forests that sprouted a century or more ago following the widespread logging operations that left much of the Adirondacks devoid of trees were ideal for the beaver. This is the main reason why the beaver experienced such a dramatic resurgence at the turn of the last century. As the process of forest succession replaces the pioneer trees with maples, beech and yellow birch, the abundance of trees useful to the beaver steadily dwindles.
The beaver is still able to exist in the Adirondacks, as this creature is capable of surviving on alder choked streams, along the shores of lakes, and on slow moving rivers. As with all forms of wildlife, finding food is always a challenge. So too is the chore of locating a territory that confronts the two year olds. Yet this year’s high water is making travel easier and allowing them to more easily move from one area to another here in the soggy Adirondacks.
John Warren wrote a shorty history of beaver in the Adirondacks for the Adirondack Almanack in 2009.
Anthony Hall wrote s short political history of the beaver in April, 2010.
Dan Crane wrote about beavers from the perspective of a bushwacker in January, 2011.
Photos: Above, a beaver from Lake George Mirror files; below, a fanciful 17th century European print picturing abundant beaver in the New World (courtesy private collection of John Warren).