Beavers get a bad rap, but Frances Backhouse, beaver enthusiast, ideacity 2017 presenter and author of Once They Were Hats, wants us all to start embracing our long-standing national animal. Here’s seven reasons you should be a fan of the great North American Beaver.
They may not be as majestic as the American bald eagle or as loveable as China’s Giant Panda, but one thing is for certain—Canada’s national animal, the North American Beaver, is very Canadian.
In fact, its Canadian connection is so extensive, writer and teacher, Frances Backhouse has written an entire book on the subject. In “Once They Were Hats,” she explores humanity’s 15, 000 year relationship with the beaver as well as it’s unique influence on Canada’s landscape and history.
If you ask Backhouse, she’ll tell you she’s proud to call the beaver Canada’s national animal. “It’s not just some charismatic or glamorous species like a lot of national animals,” she says. “The beaver does so much for us and is so integral to the country on a historical and ecological level.”
Here, 7 interesting facts that will help you embrace the beaver as our national animal.
1. Beavers are just old fashion Canadians
Beavers work hard, remain with one partner for their entire life and usually only raise one family a year.
And they certainly don’t resemble the promiscuous, baby making rodents they’re often compared to. As Backhouse points out in her book, the Norway rat starts breeding around two months after they’re born and produces litters of six to 22 young, three to 12 times a year.
In contrast, our old fashion North American Beaver prefers to wait. Although they reach sexual maturity at a year old, most don’t mate until they are two or three years old and typically raise two to four kits.
2. They played a huge role in Canada’s development
Beaver pelts were integral to the Canadian fur trade where Aboriginal and European hunters supplied trade networks with beaver pelts, which were largely used to make top hats that were fashionable in Europe during the 18th and 19th century.
As the beaver became scarce in certain regions, the network expanded, laying the groundwork for the development of Canada.
Surprising even to Backhouse, was the continued demand for beaver pelts well into the 20th century. In 1981, trappers sold a record high in beaver pelts.
3. They are impressive animals
Don’t let their globular physique fool you. Beavers have been known to fell trees up to a metre in diameter using their incisor teeth and powerful lower jaw muscles.
They’re also built for the water. Their large flat tail that acts like a rudder and webbed feat make them excellent swimmers. When underneath the water, a protective transparent membrane allows them to keep their eyes open while valves in their ears and nose keep water from coming in.
The beaver’s incisors stick out in front of their lips allowing them to keep their mouth closed as they cut and chew wood submerged underwater. And they don’t have to rush while they’re down there. Beavers can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes.
4. They’re great for the environment
As a keystone species, beavers create wetlands habitats, an ecosystem that many other species rely upon.
They also help mitigate floods and drought. A study out of the University of Alberta called the removal of the beaver from the wetlands an environmental disturbance. “In times of drought they may be one of the most effective ways to mitigate wetland loss,” lead author Glynnis Hood said of his findings. “Some people believe climate is driving everything, but the presence of beaver has a dramatic effect on the availability of open water in an area. Beaver are helping to keep water in areas that would otherwise be dry.”
In fact, Backhouse even found evidence of beavers diverting an entire stream in the early 1900s.
5. They’re “dam” hard workers
Backhouse calls them “monogamous, workaholic homebodies” and it certainly seems like that clean living and hard work pays off.
The largest existing dam today is 850 metres wide—but the largest ever was recorded in the late 1700s by mapmaker David Thompson when he stumbled across a dam that was a mile long and wide enough for his horses to walk two abreast. “Coming from anyone else, this might seem like hyperbole, but given Thompson’s renown as a surveyor, I trust his appraisal,” Backhouse writes in her book.
6. They need some love
In 2011, Senator Nicole Eaton called for the beaver to be replaced by the polar bear, hurling insults like “dentally defective rat” and “toothy tyrant” at our long serving national symbol.
Backhouse, who was well into writing her book at the time, came to the beavers defence in an opinion piece titled, “Stop the Beaver Bashing!” published by The Tyee. “It appears Ms. Eaton needs refresher courses in both history and biology,” she writes in the article.
In her book, Backhouse suggests that the Senator’s attack may have been of a personal nature. “Her denunciation hinted at a revenge motive, for she also mentioned her ongoing battle to keep beavers from damaging the dock at her summer cottage,” she writes.
7. They were important to Indigenous peoples
The beaver was very important to native populations who made use of as much of the animal as possible. In addition to using their fur, beaver meat was an important winter food for Native populations because it contained three times more calories than other red meat.
Native communities also used their teeth for chisels and decorative necklaces.
While the hunting of beavers was common among most native populations, Backhouse says “there was a common thread of respect for the beaver as part of the natural ecosystem.”
That respect was also reflected in the Natives use of the beaver as a totem animal.
Frances Backhouse recently appeared at the ideacity conference (June 14, 15 and 16) in Toronto on June 16, 2017. For more information on the conference, visit www.ideacity.ca/ideacity-2017/.