Georgia Wildlife Resources Division
2070 U.S. Hwy. 278, SE, Social Circle, GA 30025
Characterized as North America's largest rodent, beavers are large semi-aquatic animals spending portions of their lives on both land and in water. Perhaps the most commonly recognized feature of beavers is their broad flat tail. While on land, they will use their tail for stability while sitting, feeding or chewing trees. In water, the tail serves as a warning device when slapped on the water to alert other beavers of danger and as a rudder for swimming.
Beavers have many other adaptations that make their lifestyle unique. The front feet are equipped with heavy toenails for dredging mud used in dam building, digging bank dens or handling food and construction material. The large webbed feet assist with swimming and stabilization while standing or walking on soft ground. The fourth toe on their hind feet has a double toenail that is used to comb fur and preen (distribute oil from oil glands to waterproof the fur). Their eyes are located near the top of their head allowing them to see above water while keeping most of their body submerged. Additionally, a thin transparent membrane covers their eyes allowing them to see quite well when submerged. The ears and nose have valves that close and keep out water when submerged. Finally,the lips on beavers are positioned to meet behind the incisor teeth, preventing water from entering their mouth and allowing them to chew while underwater.
Distinguishing between male and female beavers is quite difficult without an actual physical examination. Both sexes have a single cloacal opening that is used by both the reproductive and excretory systems. The male organ is actually contained inside the cloacal opening.
Beavers are social animals and usually live in family units called colonies. Asingle colony may contain a breeding adult pair and both yearling and juvenile offspring. Beavers usually mate for the life of an individual. If a mate is killed, the remaining beaver will form a new breeding pair with another beaver. Breeding in Georgia typically occurs in October through March. Offspring are born 105-107 days following breeding. Beavers become sexually mature at two years of age and will then produce one to four kits (young) annually. Once the offspring reach sexual maturity, the young either leave to find their own territory or are forced out by the adults.
Beavers are territorial animals. Male and female beavers produce scented oil or castoneum from their castor glands that is used to mark territory and attract mates. Leaves and mud are hauled out of nearby water to create a mound on which castor is deposited to mark territory. Although castor mounds are built year-round, increased mound building activity occurs during the winter and early spring during times of dispersal and mating.
Beavers are one of the many herbivores (plant-eaters) found in Georgia. Their diet varies seasonally. During the winter months, woody vegetation is the meal of choice. Preferred winter foods include sweet gum, ash, willows, poplar, cottonwoods, pines and fruit trees. However, no tree is safe when a beaver is hungry. During the spring and summer, beavers seem to depend less on trees and relish aquatic plants and lush tender green shoots of terrestrial plants. When available, beavers will eat green corn and use the stalks for dam building.
In preparation for winter, beavers may create a food cache or feed bed. Trees are cut down and chewed into manageable sections and floated to the food cache. These food storage areas are usually located underwater near winter dens for easy access during times of harsh weather. In appearance, food caches will look like brush piles located in the water but with all the bark chewed off the limbs. However, food caches are not always built, especially in the south. Because winters are typically milder than in the north, beavers will sometimes opt to survive on whatever food is nearby their winter lodge.
Shelter is an essential component of any animal's habitat. Beavers create their own shelter in the form of either bank dens or lodges. Dens are created by digging holes in banks of lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks or streams. Dens may collapse when flooded causing beavers to either move and create a new den or patch the holes in the existing den using mud and sticks. Beavers oftentimes will have a series of dens in case one den becomes unsuitable. If the banks are not suitable for digging, beavers will opt to pile up sticks and form a lodge. Entrances to either the den or lodge are positioned underwater but the den itself is usually located 1-2 feet above the water level. Beaver lodge Beaver creating a meal out its preferred winter food.
One of the most famous characteristics of beavers is their ability to build dams. Beaver dams have three primary functions. The first is to control water levels to protect lodges and dens. Dams help mediate flooding thereby minimizing damage. The second function is protection. Beavers move more efficiently in water and are able to avoid predators more effectively. The third, and most important, function is to assist them in feeding. Beaver dams back up water and flood vegetation to create ponds, which allows beavers to feed in an aquatic environment. Plus, it is easier to float sticks in water than to drag them on land.
Beavers can be found throughout Georgia and most of North America wherever suitable habitat exists. Present in most areas with a year-round water flow, beavers are found in streams, lakes, farm ponds, wetlands, and low lying land or swamps along flood-prone creek and river bottoms. Beavers occasionally are found in roadside ditches, drainage ditches, and sewage ponds and are becoming more common in urban areas.