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Among the more humble recipients of our longer walks and affinity for nature during the pandemic: beavers.
On recent mornings, shortly before and after sunrise, small groups of people have traveled to a bridge on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston. Some leave willow branches. For the beavers.
“They’ve got this whole following,” said Tamar Selch, who stops by regularly with her husband, Zach. “They’re very cute. And how often do you really get to see beavers out there?”
Illinois’ largest rodents are in city lagoons, rivers and streams. They’re on Instagram and TikTok. Sometimes a nuisance, and at other times a welcomed presence, beavers have found respite all over the state, a switch from when they were wiped out by hunters by the early 1900s — and a sign that water quality and habitat possibilities have long been on the upswing. Now they’re making their last push as the cold sets in to shore up their lodges and stock up on food.
And offering another reminder of what we notice when we spend more time outdoors.
“When I was a kid, the idea that I would see a wild beaver on my walks in the morning was unheard of,” Zach Selch said. “So it’s sort of cool to have them right here in the middle of Evanston.”
The Selch family posts about the Northwestern beavers on social media, sometimes LinkedIn. They’ve enjoyed identifying who’s who in the family. And there is a certain cuteness to appreciate.
“They pretty much stand on their hind legs and pick up the food in their hands and then they chew it, and it’s like you would expect,” Zach Selch said. “Click click click click click click click click. So it’s pretty fascinating to watch them.”
Scientists describe the four-legged engineers as smart, tenacious, usually busy. They leave behind a scent that smells something like vanilla, and their teeth are sharp enough to cut through a willow tree in a minute. They never stop growing and can top 70 pounds — enough to take out a small car.
“There’s so much wildlife that people are just not aware of because we’re not looking for it,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “And so many people during this pandemic have been out in nature in a way that just wasn’t happening.”
One of the first spots Frisbie clocked evidence of beavers was at Bubbly Creek, a branch of the Chicago River that runs through Bridgeport and was the Union Stock Yards’ dumping grounds. Once described as a sewer, the South Fork of the South Branch is the recent recipient of federal funds nearing $12 million to cover a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restoration study and assessment project.
“It’s just going to be transformative,” Frisbie said. “People’s perception of it is it’s just this foul place. But if you went there right now you would find wildlife.”
By the turn of the 20th century, beavers were nearly wiped out in Illinois, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. It’s likely they were extinct throughout almost all of the state at one point.
Starting in 1929, beavers were reintroduced to various counties, and in later decades some beavers in booming populations were trapped and released to help bolster others. In the lower Great Lakes basin, beavers really returned in the 1970s, said Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist with the Cook County Forest Preserve District. The passage of the Clean Water Act helped make habitat more welcoming.
“The water quality in general has improved dramatically in the last 40 years,” Anchor said. “So because these species are generalists, it has improved their ability to live amongst us, and they took advantage of it.”
This year, we’re noticing.
“The number of people using the forest preserves has absolutely exploded,” Anchor said. “So there’s just a lot more eyes out there seeing things they normally don’t see.”
An “extreme uptick” in reported beaver activity hit the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in the last two years, said Dan Grigas, a district ecologist. District officials expect it’s either from an increase in overall population density, or more attention paid to the rodents, or a combination of both.
“There’s hardly ever downtime in a beaver’s life,” Grigas said. “They’re always doing something.”
As temperatures drop or severe storms arrive, the semiaquatic, sociable experts at hunkering down and making it through a tough winter will head inside their dens, or lodges. One option involves burrowing into a bank, so the beavers can swim down and then come up into one big room above the water line. “Like a studio apartment, basically,” Grigas said. The other is the recognizable mound of sticks and mud.
The season is usually “easy living for a beaver,” Anchor said. They’ll rely on their food cache — a “magnificent” one can currently be seen at Powderhorn Lake on the city’s Southeast Side.
The Cook County Forest Preserves sometimes helps to move beavers around, or steps in if dams lead to health or safety issues. Gnawed trees spotted near the Montrose Beach dunes earlier this year caused some concerns. Stewards said they had a U.S. Department of Agriculture biologist check out the site, but the peripatetic rodent seemed to be on its way.
When beavers find a partner, they tend to stick together for as long as the natural world allows — although research suggests they may be “opportunistically promiscuous.” They create family units, called colonies, and breeding starts in the new year. Baby beavers — kits — start to appear after a few months. After sticking around for a few years, the kids have to strike out on their own; males are usually kicked out first, Grigas said.
Area beavers don’t have many predators. But otters have cleaned out some young beavers.
“Otters are actually the Vikings, the Goths, the Lombards, the Vandals of the aquatic world,” Anchor said. “They come through and they let their presence be known.”
If beavers can skirt predators, and avoid wreaking havoc on private property, they can help ecosystems. They were once literally parachuted into Idaho to help with flooding; the test beaver was reportedly named Geronimo. In more recent years, they’ve been considered as a natural solution to drought problems in the West.
In the Midwest, with warmer winters and increased precipitation fueled by climate change, beavers can help keep some water systems balanced, with dams cushioning water fluctuations in urban areas. On the flip side, it’s important that beavers don’t dam one of the few creeks with active springs and high water quality, which support rare species like some mussels.
Or take down too many trees.
On a late December morning in Evanston, as the sun rose above an unsettled Lake Michigan, a beaver that was perched under a bridge gnawed a twig, swam toward a thin layer of ice cracked by its tail and disappeared under the water. Multiple people stopped by to ask if the family was out. Felicia Brown stopped to watch.
“It became a source of inspiration,” Brown said. “I was going out there once or twice a week, then I was going out there four times a week. And everybody was comparing notes.”
She pointed out the protective wiring up around some nearby trees, and a few remaining stumps.
“When the willow trees started to be decimated, I was so excited,” Brown joked. She saw beavers years ago and recognized the signs. This family became a highlight of the year’s walks, she said. If you saw people by the bridge, you knew the beavers were out.
“It was definite motivation to get out there and to see what was going on.”