What do Times Square, beavers, and waterfowl all have in common? They are all part of the greatest conservation story of all time.
I remember the first time I heard one. I was seven years old and elated by the opportunity to skip school for a wood duck hunt with my old man. In the predawn darkness, we set out for his favorite pond, Pickle Pond. Our canoe carved through the glass surface of the golden cedar water we oared upon, and although we could not see our hands in front of our faces, the absent wind was a canvas for hearing all things near and far. A great horned owl could be heard in the far reaches of hardwoods adjacent to the pond, and through that a cry from a wood duck hen could be heard even closer. Then, I heard something vaguely familiar. It sounded like my cousin who had belly flopped in my grandmom’s pool last spring, loud and violent against uncompromising water. The silence cracked again, this time just feet from our canoe.
“What’s that?” I frantically asked as fear drove thoughts of returning home and going to school.
My dad replied quietly: “Nothing more than a tail slapping beaver.”
We saw plenty of wood ducks that day, but in my young age I couldn’t comprehend what I was truly bearing witness too: the tail end of a centuries old conservation struggle between man, beaver, and waterfowl.
A Conservation Tragedy
The 1800’s proved a fateful time for most of America’s wildlife. The economic bug had bit the New World, and with it the European immigrants who jumped the Atlantic dunes two-hundred years prior were now reaping wild benefits. One of the biggest markets of the century was commercial hunting and trapping. The buffalo is the poster child for this time, and a true homeland conservation disaster, but when Europeans flooded the Americas in the 1700’s it wasn’t buffalo that was on their mind, it was beaver.
The American beaver was prized for its thick and insulating pelt which made for a powerful fashion statement in European women who adorned fur hats and coats. European settlers had been trapping beaver with the aid of Native American expertise since the Mayflower beached in Cape Cod, when beaver populations numbered over 60 million. It was a prosperous venture and many became wealthy at the expense of dead beavers. For example, the land we now call Times Square was sold to New York City by a man named John Jacob Astor, who made his fortune off the beaver fur trade.
With increased trapping pressure, it wasn’t long till nearly all the beaver on the east coast were plucked from their ponds. With beaver virtually extirpated anywhere near the Atlantic coast, mountain men were forced to plant the seeds of Manifest Destiny on their journey west in search of more pelts. John Jacob Astor later formed the Pacific Fur Company, and aided in the extirpation of western beaver populations.
Meanwhile back in the East, would-be profiteers made a living off waterfowl hunting. Market hunters made a comfortable living by selling meat and feathers of waterfowl, and were able to do so with ease as pre-1900’s America included no regulations on harvest. It was classic tragedy of the commons. Before long, the once profitable art of shooting ducks by the hundreds was impractical. Ducks and geese no longer blackened the sky through nightly flights, and the ponds and lakes sat quiet and duckless on a December’s night. Wood ducks, especially, were at the forefront of the waterfowl massacre, and it wasn’t until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that wood duck hunting in America was abolished outright, preventing Aix sponsa from certain extinction. But preventing unregulated harvest wasn’t enough, wood ducks were in dire need of aided recovery. One of the most important conservation measures resulting from this was also one of the most surprising: to conserve imperiled beavers.
Why More Beavers Means More Waterfowl
If the pond is where the wood duck calls home, then the beaver is the faithful architect. Wood ducks rely on beaver ponds not only for breeding and wintering grounds, but also for brood rearing and nesting sites. Wood ducks aren’t the only ones who reap benefits from beaver ponds though, black ducks, hooded mergansers, and mallards also call beaver ponds home.
The value of a beaver pond lies in the life history of the species. Beavers are stream engineers and attracted to the sound of running water. Driven by instinct and millions of years’ worth of evolution, they will gnaw down trees with iron plated incisors and drag fallen vegetation to the site of running water. With the aid of carefully harvested clumps of mud, they make an impermeable dam that can effectively flood the fastest flowing of streams.
The result is a beaver pond, and in that pond you will find a lodge which can host a colony of four to eight beavers. After establishing a pond, the next step for a beaver is to make a new one, perhaps further downstream where the water is still flowing. Untouched populations can create up to 26 ponds per mile of stream length, so it’s easy to imagine that the pre-European landscape was peppered with beaver ponds from New York City to the Pacific coast. While the wood ducks, black ducks, and mergansers flew north and south on migration they surely saw plenty of sites worthy of a quick feast, or to rear a brood of ducklings.
In fact, ducklings most of all benefit from beaver ponds. Beavers can virtually clear-cut forage adjacent to their ponds. As the fur covered lumberjacks drop trees, they open the forest canopy allowing light to hit understory shrubs and grass which previously had not a chance to grow to their full potential. A newly opened skylight allows shrubs to grow thick, creating perfect ground nesting habitat for species such as mallards. Once hatched, young ducklings can hide in the thick vegetation to avoid predators.
The beavers will drag vegetation either for food or dam into the water, and inevitably some of it will get lost or dropped in the pond. The dam prevents vegetation from floating downstream, and it eventually becomes fodder for aquatic vegetation and invertebrates. Invertebrate populations within the confines of a beaver dam can be 3 to 5 times more abundant than sites downstream, making the pond a virtual buffet for ducklings who depend on protein packed invertebrates for growth and development.
It’s no wonder that beaver dams are so closely associated with wood ducks. Combine the ecological productivity of a beaver dam with the fact that wood ducks nest in dead tree cavities overlooking water, and site seemingly tailored for wood ducks to thrive. Call it divine fate or ecological coincidence, but this is the relationship that beavers held with wood ducks up until the 1800s, when fur trapping swept beavers off the North American land scape.
Since that time, both wood ducks and beaver have rebounded due to persistent conservation work and legislation in the animal’s favor. Ducks Unlimited had a plan to conserve beavers for the ducks benefit when in 1938 general manager Tom Main said “We have mined the northland, not for wheat, not for gold-but for fur. Now the fur seed is gone.”
Although Duck’s Unlimited could not carry out their plan to preserve the beaver of the boreal forest due to money constraints, their idea of protecting beaver for duck is a well-known relationship in wildlife management. As the 20th century progressed, the wood duck and beaver both received support and regulation of their harvest. In 1941, the wood duck hunting season was reopened after a 33-year hiatus on regulated harvest. Today, we enjoy the luxury of sharing our land with as many as 15 million beaver, and a wood duck breeding population of nearly 10,000 pairs in New Jersey alone.
Wood duck hunting offers some of the finest duck hunting of all, and if your smart you’ll head to a beaver dam, there is surely a wood duck calling that place a temporary home. Nearly twenty years since my first encounter with a beaver on a wood duck hunt with my dad, I still enjoy the scenery of a beaver pond for when I’m after wood ducks.
I have a buddy who thanks the “duck gods” when a wood duck hunt goes as planned. I tell him he’s foolish, for I know better. I thank the beaver.
To read more about the beaver and wood duck relationship:
Duck’s Unlimited Status of the Wood Duck
Duck’s Unlimited Beaver Ponds and Breeding Ducks
US Geological Service Waterfowl Management Handbook