Why is a rodent on our state flag?

The rodent on the Oregon State flag is an American Beaver. In 1969, the Legislature recognized the American Beaver by naming it Oregon’s state mammal. Beavers enhance habitat for many other fish and wildlife species through dam-building activities. Beaver ponds provide areas for people to fish, hunt and view wildlife.

How did beavers earn this honor?

During the 1800s, beavers and several other fur-bearing animals were trapped and killed for their pelts or fur. Pelts were shipped back east, to Europe, and China to make beaver hats and coats.

Beaver pelts and activities played a significant role in helping to get Oregon’s economy and growth started. Some say that Oregon’s early economy was built on beaver pelts.

Beaver swimming (courtesy ODFW)

Unregulated trapping virtually eliminated beavers from many landscapes. Other animals trapped included mink, otters, muskrats, martins, raccoons, red fox, grey fox, bobcats, and other furs.

Recovery

With proper management the beaver has become re-established. Beavers can be found in many state waters where the habitat needs are met. Beaver habitat almost always include riparian habitats with trees such as cottonwood and aspen, willow, alder and maple.

Small streams with a constant water flow that meander through relatively flat terrain in fertile valleys seem especially productive of beavers. Beavers can also be found near larger bodies of water such as lakes.

Well suited for water

Beavers are well suited for aquatic life with their paddle-shaped tail, webbed hind feet, compact body, and thick coat with coarse guard hairs that are coated with waterproof oils. Beavers also have a special membrane that cover their eyes and nose when swimming. Finally, Beavers are able to extend their time underwater (to at least 15 minutes) by slowing their heart rate.

Telling the difference

Beavers can be mistaken for muskrats or nutria. The tails and sizes of these animal are strikingly different.

Beavers are the largest rodent in North America often weighing in excess of 65 pounds, and may reach nearly four feet in length. The broad, flat paddle-shaped tail of the American beavers is nearly invisible when they are swimming.

Both muskrats and nutria are quite a bit smaller than beavers and very different tails. Muskrats and nutria have thinner tails and are significantly smaller. Nutrias typically range from 9-20 pounds and have a round tail. Muskrats have a thin, slightly flattened tail and can reach up to 4 pounds.

The tail of a Muskrat and Nutria will either sways back and forth like a propeller or are held out of the water as the animal swims. Nutria are considered invasive in many areas.

Clumsy on land

Courtesy Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife
photo by Laura Rogers

Beavers are at risk when foraging on shore or when migrating. Because of their size, behavior and habitat, adult beavers have few natural enemies. Predators include humans, bears, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, and dogs.

The beaver’s sharp incisors are used to cut trees and peel bark while eating. These incisors continually grow but are worn down by the grinding, tree cutting, and feeding. As the incisors wear down, the back surface is softer than the front which helps to create the sharp edge.

Beavers eat a variety of vegetation, roots, herbs, etc. Commonly consumed foods include hammer willows, vine and big leaf maples, alder, and cottonwood. In the winter, they depend on woody plants for most of their food.

Not all are dam builders

Beavers build deep water dams which helps deter predators, facilitates an underwater den entrance, and promotes growth of their favorite foods. Dams vary in size from a small accumulation of woody material to structures 10 feet high and 165 feet wide. 

These water areas help provide habitat for many fish and animals, and are critical to juvenile salmon.

But not all beavers build dams. Beavers living on lakes or large rivers that maintain a constant level do not build dams. They may still build lodges and bank dens for resting and rearing their young.

Beavers are also the mascot for Oregon State University.

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Beavers (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/beavers, and Beaver factsheet (https://www.dfw.state.or.us/conservationstrategy/docs/Beaver_factsheet.pdf)
–The Oregon Encyclopedia, Fur Trade in Oregon Country gives a thorough account of the fur trade and economic impacts generated for the state (see https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/fur_trade_in_oregon_country/#.XtVBrW5Fycw

Have you ever seen a rabbit climb a tree? 
Somehow seeing a bunny in a tree just seems out of place.

Brush Rabbit (courtesy ODFW)

Identifying

Brush rabbits are one of the smaller rabbit species with short legs and gray tail, and long ears. They are dark brownish gray with a pale gray belly. Adults measure around a foot in length and weight up to two pounds.  

In some parts of Oregon, the Brush Rabbit and the introduced Eastern Cottontail have interbred. The resulting hybrid is small like the Brush Rabbit and has a white cottontail of the Eastern.  

Range

Brush Rabbits are found along the Pacific coast from Washington south through Baja California, Mexico. They are also found in the Willamette Valley and coastal stream valleys up to the Cascade Range.

Habitat

Typically, Brush Rabbits stay very close to home and make their home in extremely dense brush. They clear runways in the brush for feeding, quick escapes, and snacking in our gardens.

Food Sources

Normally, these animals are solitary but have been known to become gregarious when foraging. Probably when they are having fun eating my azaleas to the ground.

In summer, the rabbits love to eat green clover. They also eat grasses, flowers, weeds, blackberries, wild roses, tree saplings, and farm and garden crops.

In winter, their diet will shift to more twiggy materials and practically any green plant especially ground hugging shrubs. They will devour plants like Gumpo Satsuki azaleas and miniature blueberries almost overnight.

Not sure it was a rabbit? Rabbits make a 45 degree cut with their incisors; deer and elk just twist and rip.

Rabbits and hares will pass soft pellets of undigested vegetation (called coprophagy). They will later re-ingest these nutritional pellets to meet their nutritional requirements.

Nests

Nests created by the females are typically located in brushy areas such as fencerows, edge habitat, brush or rock piles, and other areas with suitable cover. The nest would resemble a shallow bowl-lined with grass, leaves, and her belly fur.   

Once the kits are born, the mother will avoid the nest for two weeks and return only at dusk and dawn to nurse and care for her young. This behavior helps hide the young from predators.

Predators

Brush Rabbits are always cautious around predators and will often use underground or brush tunnels rather than crossing open ground. They use a couple of different techniques to foil predators which include:

  • Sitting absolutely still for long periods of time.
  • Running in a wild zigzag pattern. They are able to run 15-20 miles an hour in one stretch.
  • Rabbits will emit a high-pitch sound similar to a cry when it feels threatened.

Predators include: Bobcats, cougars, domestic dogs/cats, coyotes, shunks, snakes, weasels, fox, mink, and a variety of raptors (particularly hawks and owls). They are also vulnerable around vehicles, mowers, weed-wackers, and habitat changes.

Population

Quick like a rabbit. These polygynous breeders can produce over 15 young each year with multiple litters. The average litter size in Oregon is 2.8.  

Brush Rabbit populations in Oregon are not threatened. Many species here are considered game animals. Check with the Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife for harvest regulations.

Cute Stuff

Did you know that rabbits purr when they are content? The purr may sound like teeth lightly chattering, but just as sweet as a kitten.

They also have a way of expressing joy called ‘binky.’ They will run and jump, twisting their body, and flicking their feet. Something like a whirling leap for joy. Most likely brought on by eating small and expensive ornamental shrubs…well maybe…

Not so Cute stuff

Rabbits gnaw a number of things from bark on young trees to small diameter plastic irrigation lines. Plants and irrigation lines are difficult to protect from the rabbits once they get started. There are several ideas for living with rabbits (and discouraging them) on State Fish and Wildlife websites.

Disease

This spring biologists found a fatal hemorrhagic disease spreading through wild and domestic rabbit populations in California. The disease does not affect humans or other animals.  Be sure to report any dead or weird acting rabbits to your local Fish and Wildlife office.

Rabbits and several other related animals can be infected with a bacterial tularemia, rabbit fever, which can be passed to humans through undercooked meat or handling meat. Wear rubber gloves and wash hands well to avoid problems.

So, will a Brush Rabbit climb a tree? Yes, if they are hungry or need a predator escape, and if the trunk is sloped. Who knew?  

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Brush Rabbits (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/pikas-rabbits-and-hares)
–Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Rabbits (https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/species-facts/rabbits)
–Wildlife Organization, Deadly disease found in California rabbits for first time, May 2020   (https://wildlife.org/deadly-disease-found-in-california-rabbits-for-first-time)
–Wikipedia, Brush Rabbits (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brush_rabbit)

What graceful bird has bright yellow feet that are rarely seen because they are in the mud?

Photo from ODFW.

The bright yellow feet of the adult Snowy Egret are typically hidden by the mud and shallow water. The younger birds have dull yellowish legs and feet. The distinctive foot (yellow) and bill (black) colors make this bird easy to identify compared to other herons.

Habitat

Snowy Egrets forage the marshes and wetlands along the Oregon coast. The bright white feathers make the bird easy to see particularly as it stands still, closely watching its prey and poising for an ambush.

Prey can insects and worms, crustaceans, fish and crayfish, reptiles, snails, and worms. They will also startle prey through movements such as head sways and wing flicks, or through sounds, stab prey with their beaks, and take prey stirred up by other animals (such as cows).  

Too beautiful

At one time, the distinctive bright white feathers growing along the bird’s nape and neck captured too much attention. Egrets were overhunted in North America for these stylish hat decorations until 1910. Populations have increased.

Check out the bright yellow feet. Photo from Unsplash.

On the rebound

The Snowy egret is an Oregon Conservation Strategy Species in the Northern Basin and Range ecoregion and protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The birds breed eastern Oregon and in several southern U.S. states from California to Mississippi and throughout Central America. Snowy Egrets can be found year around in South America.

Where to look

The Snowy Egret is native and very common on the southern Oregon coast and likes to hang out near estuaries (such as Haynes Inlet near North Bend and along the Coos Bay), salt marshes (Isthmus Slough), flooded agricultural fields (like along the Coquille River drainage near Coquille) and mudfields, pond edges, and other shallow waters. A full-grown Snowy Egret is about two feet tall and has a wing span of nearly 40-inches.  

Where to learn more:
–All about birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Snowy_Egret/id)
–ebird, Merlin, Cornell Lab of Ornithology (https://ebird.org/species/snoegr)
–Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/bitterns-herons-and-egrets)