Beaver Takes a Bite of the Big Apple

February 23, 2006

After an absence from NYC since colonial times, the beaver has returned, taking up residence at the Bronx Zoo, along the banks of the Bronx River.

That most toothy of rodents, and nature’s peerless engineer—the beaver—has finally resettled on local shores. The legendary state mammal of New York, whose plush coat was the chief commodity and export of New Amsterdam’s Dutch founders, was hunted to local extinction during colonial times. But recent sightings of gnawed tree trunks, a hump-shaped lodge, and at last, the shelter’s industrious master builder himself swimming nearby have proven that this New York City original is back where it belongs. Wildlife Conservation Society employees have documented their observations with photos and film.

Beavers are North America’s largest rodents. They were once widespread, thought to number more than 60 million in pre-colonial times. By 1671, the trade in their luxurious pelts had reached 80,000 annually. Beaver skins were even used as currency, worth about 16 guilders each. So central was this critter to our urban roots that it graces New York City’s official seal, and the New York Stock Exchange bell tolls just one block north of Beaver Street.

But seals and street signs could not immortalize the coveted creature. By 1800, beavers had completely vanished in the United States east of the Mississippi; a century later, the species was near extinction and needed protection. Today, the beaver has rebounded in much of its range. It has also reappeared in small numbers in Westchester County, from where the animal discovered on the Bronx River likely swam downstream.

Aside from its distinctive paddle tail and hefty size—typically between two and three feet long and weighing 25 to 55 pounds—the beaver is best known for its powerful gnawing teeth. This animal doesn’t need a chainsaw to fell the large trees that it fashions into artfully constructed dams and lodges. Although the beaver’s handiwork can result in flooding and property damage, its dams also create ponds that provide habitat for other species and purify running water through the removal of silt.

In honor of Bronx Congressman José E. Serrano, whose devotion to restoring the Bronx River has helped secure $14.5 million in dedicated federal grants over the past five years, the Zoo has nicknamed its newest riverine resident “José.”

Where’s José?
Visitors with beaver fever may be able to spot José and his lodge from the bridge leading into the Bronx Zoo near our Bronx River Entrance (Gate B).

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