The beaver, Castor canadensis, was an important part of the economy in North Carolina well into the 1800s. Its valuable fur was the main item of trade in the colonies. As a result the beaver was nearly trapped to extinction in many sections of the United States, including North Carolina. The last report of native beaver taken in this state was in 1897. In the 1930s and 40s several states began restocking programs. In 1939, 29 beavers were obtained from Pennsylvania and released in North Carolina, on what is now the Sandhills Game Land. By 1953, they had populated seven counties and were estimated at nearly 1,000 animals.
Public demand for beaver stocking was high due to pelt values and aesthetic reasons. Because of this demand, the stocking program was continued between 1951 and 1956, and fifty-four beavers were trapped and released in nine counties including Cherokee, Henderson, Nash, Northampton, Person, Rockingham, Surry, Vance, and Wilkes. Currently, beavers occupy most of North Carolina's watershed systems.
The most frequent misunderstanding about beavers is that many people think that beavers eat fish. Beavers are strict vegetarians adapted to a diet of the inner bark of woody plants and herbs.
They eat a wide variety of trees and shrubs including sweet gum, poplar, willow, birch, box elder, fir, pine, cedar, ironwood, privet and elderberry. Agricultural crops of corn and soybeans are also eaten and beavers may store cut sticks underwater for winter feeding. They show a particular preference for horticultural shrubs and tree farms, primarily due to the fertilizer applied to cultivated species.
The beaver is best known for its ability to construct a sturdy dam, creating a pond which floods vegetation and allows them to feed in an aquatic environment. If the food supply becomes depleted in or near a pond, beavers may relocate and build new ponds. These ponds may range in size from less than one acre to over 100 acres.
Beavers construct two types of houses or lodges apart from the dams. Pond lodges are constructed of sticks and mud and may reach 15-20 feet in diameter and 10 feet high. Bank dens are dug into exposed banks and are sometimes covered partially with sticks and mud. Dens and lodges usually have more than one underwater entrance to the dry protected nest site. The nest site inside the lodge is covered with wood shavings which are less susceptible to dampening than grass or leaf bedding.
Breeding takes place during the months of December and January. After a gestation period of 3 to 4 months, the young kits are born from March to May. The litter size varies from one to eight kits with two to four being common. Only one litter is born per year.
At about one month of age, the young beavers begin to follow their mothers to feeding areas. The young are driven out at about 2 years of age to start new colonies. A colony usually consists of five to seven beavers—two adults, two yearlings and two kits
The beaver is the largest rodent in North America, weighing between 35 and 50 pounds as adults. However, beavers weighing up to 90 lbs. have been reported. Beavers are 2-3 feet in length, with an additional 10-18 inches for the tail. Males and females are similar in size. Beavers have short front legs and webbed hind feet with a double claw on the second toe that the beaver uses to comb its fur. The beaver’s fur is chestnut brown to blackish, depending on the individual. Two noticeable features are its four large yellow incisor teeth used for cutting bark and chiseling trees, and its large flat hairless tail. Muskrats, also an aquatic rodent, are mistaken for beaver, but have ratlike tails and weigh less. The beaver uses its tail for swimming, for communicating warnings, for storing fat and also for support. Beavers are slow and clumsy on land, but agile and quick in the water.