Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 26.djvu/279

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Messrs. Editors;

I HAVE been highly entertained, and gained some new ideas, by reading Dr. Stockwell's article on "The Beaver and his Works" in the "Monthly" for May, 1884. I have myself long since made the acquaintance of the beaver, but in different regions from that studied by Dr. Stockwell, Perhaps that is the reason why my observations in some particulars differ from his. The beaver has, or had, such a wide range, and has been subjected to such different and ever-changing environment, that it is not at all extraordinary if his habits changed and differed more or less in widely separated localities. The doctor remarks that modern science has disproved the statements that the beaver used his tail for a trowel and as a vehicle for transporting loads. How has "modern science" disproved these statements? Has it not been, only, by the failure of some later naturalists to observe the beaver's habits which were reported by older observers? Hence, they assumed that, what they had not seen, no one else ever saw, and on such negative evidence the genius of the beaver has come to be underrated. I will venture to suggest that no modern naturalist has seen quite all the beavers at work, nor examined quite all the beaver-dams, that existed during the last fifty years. Great variation in habits of life in an animal as intellectual and full of resources as the beaver might be expected during that process of persecution to which it has been subjected, and which has reduced its numbers more than a thousand-fold.

In the summer of 1865, while resting late on a cloudy, sultry afternoon near the banks of a stream south of the Niobrara, in Northeastern Nebraska, I had the gratificacation of seeing a singular beaver-performance. I was sitting on a fallen tree, when I heard a peculiar noise over a rise beyond me. Creeping to the top of the slight elevation, and peeping over, I saw a dozen beavers rolling a small log or thick pole of Cottonwood in the direction of a stream. A few were pulling in front, but most of them were pushing from behind. Finally they rolled the log into a shallow depression, whose farther side was much steeper than the side from which they brought it. Their united strength was insufficient to roll it out of this depression, and it was most curious to watch the various manoeuvres to accomplish this purpose. First they cut off about eighteen inches of the thick end, and then made another attempt, and again failed.

Then they came together almost in a circle as if for consultation. Suddenly they separated, went back to the log, and rolled it about sixteen inches back in the direction from which they brought it. Five of the beavers now went in front, stretched out their tails toward the log, when those behind rolled it on the tails of those in front. The five beavers in front now pulled, those behind pushed, and in a few minutes the log was drawn out of the depression on to comparatively smooth ground. When this was accomplished the imprisoned tails in front were released, and the tails were handled and examined as if they were hurt. Rolling was then resumed. This satisfied me that the stories which I had heard from trappers and Indians about the beaver sometimes using his tail to move burdens was correct.

Again in September, 1870, while attempting to cross a tributary of the Logan River in Wayne County, Nebraska, on the breast of a beaver-dam, owing to a "circus" commenced by my mules, a small portion of the left side of the dam was damaged. Camping near by at dusk, I hid myself among the tall weeds, and waited for developments. The beavers soon appeared, and commenced the process of repair. They carried weeds and mud, and closed up even the tracks left by the mules, and smoothed down the sides of the dam. In doing this, I could distinctly see one, but only one, draw his tail backward and forward over the freshly placed earth and mud.

It is a mistake to suppose that the beaver only resides in or near wooded districts. At the time of which I speak there were still beaver at work on tributaries of the Logan, where there was no timber growing of any kind within twenty miles. In these places they built their dams of tall sunflower-stems, and the stems of other plants that grew luxuriantly on and near the banks. They laid the stems in the water, mainly lengthwise, up and down the stream, bound them together with mud, and made them amazingly strong.

In regard to the manner in which the beavers cut down trees there is some variation. A few years ago in Middle Park, Colorado, I measured the stumps of forty-two trees that were cut down at various times by beavers. In all these cases, except one, the gouging was done to near the center, equally on all sides. In the one exception the cutting was done beyond the center on one side, and only one fifth as far on the other. In Northeastern Nebraska, where, during seven years, I measured stumps of