On a recent warm winter’s day, Michael and I headed for our favorite local trail at Matt’s Creek, across the James River Foot Bridge on U.S. 501.

We were soon greeted by an amazing wooden sculpture, with shavings all around the base of a tree that would soon topple to the ground.

Other trees had already been felled, telltale signs that beavers had been busily gnawing along the banks of the James River, both to eat the bark and potentially use the tree for a dam, though there was no sign of a dam or lodge in the vicinity.

LNA 0213 Shannon - beaver art 1

Beavers munch on small saplings and very large trees, leaving many people to decry the damage, but the damage humans inflict on trees pales in comparison. I prefer to call it beaver art.

While it’s true that damming creeks in urban areas, like Blackwater Creek, can interfere with water and sewer lines and exacerbate flooding, beavers are important parts of natural ecosystems.

Early residents of this continent considered beavers sacred because they create wetlands, the key to life for many species. Almost half of endangered and threatened species in North America rely upon wetlands, which also soak up floodwaters, alleviate droughts and floods, lessen erosion, raise the water table and purify water.

Although I’ve seen signs of beavers for years, I’ve yet to spot one. They are largely nocturnal and stealthy.

Beavers are among the largest of rodents, and the average beaver weighs about 60 pounds. Like most rodents, they have teeth that never stop growing, so they have to keep gnawing to prevent their teeth from getting too long. As herbivores, they prefer to eat leaves, bark, twigs, roots and aquatic plants.

Beavers can swim at speeds of up to five miles an hour and can remain underwater for 15 minutes.

Beavers do not hibernate, but are active all winter, swimming and foraging even when a layer of ice covers their watery home. They store sticks and logs in a pile in their ponds, eating the underbark.

They mate for life during their third year. Both parents care for the young, called kits. A pregnancy usually produces between one and four kits. The youngsters stay with their parents for about two years.

Beavers rarely overpopulate because they breed only once a year and defend large streamside territories from other beavers. Trapping beavers often fails because removal stimulates larger litters among those left behind.

By the early 1900s, beavers were almost wiped out in North America, Europe and Asia due to both trapping and draining of lands for agriculture. Estimates of the current North American population are as low as 5 percent of those present before European settlement. Nonetheless, they are not considered a threatened species.

For me, it’s always a thrill to see where beavers have been busily chomping or sliding into a creek or river. I don’t have to see the animals to know that they are alive and well and doing their sacred duty.

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