Those who know of my affinity for nature and wild places will be surprised to learn that I once had my own nightclub.
You will be less surprised when I explain that I was six years old at the time and the club comprised a couple of dozen dingy and threadbare stuffed animals. The club convened each night within the blanket burrow we inhabited in my bed. I devoted myself to the good cheer of club members, and they taught me a lesson that has endured over the decades. While I wouldn’t have admitted this then, I had favorites. I wished I could spend all of my time with, say, Uncle Elton or Flash, but my sense of fairness dictated that I spend equal amounts of time with each club member. I decided then that when I was old enough to have real animals, I would limit the number so I could spend quality time with each.
This dictum has served me well; as much as I love animals, I have only two pets, a rabbit and a goat, and do not feel overwhelmed by their desires.
While the Nightclub Principle has worked well where pets are concerned, I have had more trouble applying it to the wild animals I know. My habits bring me into contact with many interesting creatures, and unlike pets, they reproduce.
Six years ago I began spending evenings with a family of beavers. Seldom has my life had the clarity of purpose it had in those first two years. Every free evening I knew what I would do -- I would hike out to the beaver pond and observe the activities of the three (soon to be four) occupants. I was able to observe the daily and seasonal shifts in family dynamics.
The third year, the 2-year old beaver moved away to start his own family. I searched many tributaries before locating him with his new mate. In process of looking for Ducky, and later his younger siblings when they set off on their own, I have found other beaver colonies that I take an interest in.
To complicate things further, these beavers all move at least once a year to establish new ponds. I am now monitoring the welfare of some seven beaver colonies. Each evening I have to decide which beavers to check on or which missing youngster to look for. I am lucky if I see my original beaver friends once every two weeks.
While I rue the loss of those simple days, the days when I was living within the bounds of the Nightclub Principle, the larger sample size has allowed me to make interesting and potentially important observations on the status of the local beaver population. For the first five years, the population grew steadily (if slowly). Over the past year it has dropped. Many ponds are unoccupied and a number of beavers are missing.
In my primary colony, Bunchberry, the patriarch since 2009, disappeared. Since beavers typically mate for life, and because he was not an old beaver, I suspect a predator, illness, or injury can be blamed for his absence. Willow, the old matriarch, emerged from last winter very thin, and has lost the vision in one eye. The colony now seems to be down to just three members, Willow, 3-year-old Sundew, and a third beaver that might be 2-year-old Balsam.
While I am saddened about the loss of the beavers I have observed and loved, and am a bit concerned about the future vigor of the population, I am also interested in the ruthless dynamics of nature, and the evidence that the population does not require human intervention to regulate its growth. I suspect that observations in coming years will help me to better understand the forces involved.
Had I adhered to the Nightclub Principle and continued to focus my interest on the inhabitants of one colony, I would not have any reason to think that this population decline extended beyond the bounds of one family. I might, however, have a better idea about what befell Bunchberry, and I would certainly know who the mystery third beaver is.
Perhaps there is an intermediate approach that I could adopt: the Beaver Principle. This principle would take into account the competing rewards of intimacy and breadth of knowledge. By this principle, time would be rationed such that roughly half of the available evenings would be spent with my favorite beaver family and the other half monitoring the welfare of the population.
Abiding by such a principle would have been easier before I met Fretful the convivial porcupine. Porcupines are even more difficult to keep track of than beavers, but have the advantage of being easy to observe in the winter when they stay near their den sites and can be tracked.
At first I intended to study just the one porcupine (really!). In the process of searching for Fretful’s den last winter, however, I located an additional 16 porcupines, each of whom I kept track of as winter progressed. In the spring, I added looking for Fretful to my already full schedule of beaver watching. How difficult it was to decide how to spend my time!
This winter, however, it seems that the Beaver Principle might work well. Each day I decide which of the porcupine den sites to visit and then, because Fretful has chosen a den site near my house, every evening at four o’clock he comes to visit me. It is a pleasure to watch him arrive, black porcupine tromping eagerly through the white of winter. Oh, and Fretful sends special regards to the friends who collected acorns for him!
Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View from Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of this region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.