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THE BEAVER.-PART I.
God has given to the beaver a shape and limbs, which are exactly fit for the manner in which it is designed to live, and to procure its food.
A beaver, when walking upon dry land, appears both clumsy and awkward. Its fore-legs are much shorter than the hind; its heels are turned outwards; and it touches the ground with only the toes of the fore-feet, but with the whole sole of its hind-feet. It drags after it a broad flat tail, covered with scales, half as long as the body; so that it goes waddling along in a most ungraceful manner.
But beavers are formed to live in the water more than on land ; and there this great tail is very useful, both as a paddle and a rudder, to urge them onwards, and to guide them in their course. The manner in which their heels turn out helps them greatly in swimming; and their toes have no folds of skin between them: they can spread out their feet wide, like the webbed feet of a duck. Their strong hind-legs enable them to swim fast and well; and their short front-paws are most handy in gathering up mud and stones, and carrying sticks, which are the chief things beavers have to do. Their front teeth are like chisels, and with these they can cut down branches with which they make their houses, and on the bark of which they feed.
Beavers are found both in the northern parts of Europe, and in North America ; but in the latter country they are far more numerous. They once
existed in some parts of England ; and in Welsh there is a particular name, meaning " broad-tailed,” still remaining, though the animals themselves have long since disappeared from the country. It is a curious fact, that the habits of the European differ from those of the American beavers. In Europe they generally live alone, and burrow in the ground, while in America we find them in large communities. Some have been led by this difference, to believe that the two species of beavers are distinct; but there are solitary beavers in America, and one or two communities of beavers in Europe ; and it seems that the difference of their habits arises from the different circumstances in which they are placed. In Europe, the neighbourhood of man, and the cultivation of the land, has thinned the number of beavers, and taken from them the means of exercising their faculty of building; and so they have become what is called burrowing or hermit beavers. But in America they have room enough to form populous villages; and this they do, but only in the back and unsettled parts of the country. Those which are near the settlements of man have just the same habits as the European animals.
The beaver has not any weapons of defence, and is by no means clever at escaping from his enemies. His peculiar instinct is directed to the object of providing himself with a habitation, and storing up the food necessary for his support during the winter. In this work he exercises the most wonderful sagacity; and the operations of beavers, where they live together in numbers, and unite in the work of construction, are most curious and interesting.
During the summer the beaver lives secluded by the margins of lakes or rivers, burrowing in the banks, which he leaves only in search of his food, or to indulge in the pleasure of bathing; but as the autumn advances, he begins to look out for society, and to prepare himself for the winter. With this view he associates himself with a band of his fellows, sometimes amounting in number to two or three hundred; and the whole body immediately set to work, either to repair their old habitations, or to construct new ones on the same plan.
THE situations in which the beavers build are very various. Sometimes they take up their abode in a pond or lake; but they generally make choice of a running stream, as more suitable for the conveyance of their materials. When the water in the stream is not deep enough, they begin by throwing a dam across it, below the part which they intend to occupy. In slow rivulets this is made nearly straight, but when the current is strong, it is formed with a curve bending outwards against the stream. This dam is constructed of driftwood of the branches of willows, birch, and poplars, cemented together with mud and stones. It is very broad at the bottom, and gradually narrows till it reaches the level of the water, which it is built to keep up; and it is so strong, that a man may cross the river by it in perfect safety. The sticks which are used vary in size, from the thickness of a
man's finger to that of his ankle. They are mostly obtained from the neighbouring woods, where they are cut with a dexterity truly astonishing. A beaver will lop off with its teeth at a single effort a stem of the thickness of a common walking-stick, as cleanly as if it had been done by a gardener's pruning-knife. When compelled to have recourse to the larger trunks, they gnaw them round and round; always taking care that they shall fall in the direction of the water, in order, as much as possible, to save themselves carriage. As soon as the tree is felled they commence lopping off its branches, which, as well as the smaller trunks, they cut into lengths, according to their weight and thickness. These are dragged in their mouths, and sometimes on their shoulders, to the water-side, where they are thrown into the stream, and towed with the current to their dam.
Exactly the same materials are employed in the construction of their habitations. These are built either immediately beneath the bank, or, if the pool be shallow, at some little distance from it. They begin by hollowing out the bottom, throwing up the mud and stones around it, and intermingling them with such sticks as they can procure. The walls having been thus raised to a sufficient height, the house is covered in with a roof in the shape of a dome, generally rising about four feet, but sometimes as much as six or seven, from the water. The entrance is made beneath a ledge, which advances several feet into the stream with a regular slope, terminating at least three feet below the surface, to guard against its being frozen up. Near the entrance, and on the outside of their houses, the beavers store up the branches of trees, the bark of which forms their chief food during the winter ; and these heaps are sometimes so large as to rise above the surface of the water, and to contain more than a cart-load of provisions. Willow, poplar, and birch, are their favourite kinds; and the latter; according to a recent traveller, renders their flesh “the most delicious eating of any animal in the known world.”
Upon the body of the beaver grows that soft glossy fur which is woven in hats, caps, bonnets gloves, and other articles of dress. We know that it was used in England for hat-making more than two hundred years ago ; and its value is such that it is a chief article of traffic with a trading company in North America, called the Hudson's Bay Company. The number of the poor beavers which have been sought out and killed is so great, that their stock is considerably diminished. In 1743 the Hudson's Bay Company alone sold 26,750 skips; and 127,080 were imported into Rochelle. Upwards of 170,000 were exported from Canada in 1788; and Quebec alone, in 1808, supplied this country with 126,927, which, at the average price of 188. 9d. per skin, would produce no less a sum than 118,9941.
DR. SAMUEL LEE. SAMUEL LEE was born of poor parents at Longnor, a village not far from Shrewsbury, in the year 1789. He was placed when very young at the village school, where he remained until he was twelve years of age.