[Reprinted from original]
Even though the first day of this year might have started us off on a warm, and very wet, note, as the week progressed we were brought back to reality with temperatures hovering at or below the freezing mark. For me, that simply meant putting on a heavier jacket before venturing outside, but for the animals who don’t have the luxury of space heaters, wool socks, and fleece blankets to keep warm, many must rely on the natural insulative properties of their fur coats to protect them from the elements.
This week’s focus is on a few local mammals that are often collectively known as “furbearers.” While all of Ohio’s native mammals are covered by a layer of hair typically referred to as fur, the ones classified as furbearers include those that were traditionally hunted or trapped for the commercial sale of their hides for use in the clothing industry. And, although modern synthetic fabrics and changing public opinion on wild animal products has greatly reduced the market for fur, the terminology has persisted through the years.
The first, and most common, of these furbearing critters is the raccoon. First gaining fame for being used as Davy Crockett’s headgear, raccoons are one of the most widespread mammals in Ohio. Their ringed tail and dark “mask” of fur around their eyes make them immediately recognizable even though their nocturnal activity keeps them out of the public view most of the time. If there is one animal that has best adapted to life around humans, the raccoon would be it. Leaving a dish of pet food outside, having a birdfeeder, or even taking a couple trash bags to the curb the night before pickup is an open invitation for raccoons to come and have an after-hours buffet., leaving you the mess to clean up in the morning
One of North America’s most unique mammals is also a common furbearer in Ohio. The Virginia opossum is our continent’s only marsupial species, and many people are surprised to find that a typical life expectancy of opossums is only about two years. These animals exhibit many interesting behaviors, but perhaps none is more associated with them than their defense strategy of feigning death when confronted which has coined the phrase, “playing ‘possum.” Opossums, like raccoons, are primarily nocturnal in nature and are, unfortunately, most often seen dead alongside roadways after being hit by vehicles. Their fur is a pale mix of gray, silver, and white but their tails and ears are hairless and an opossum that has survived a winter season will usually have ears that appear shriveled and blackened due to exposure to the cold.
The final two furbearers in today’s discussion are both aquatic in nature and are two of our larger rodent species. Because of a life spent around, in, and under the water, the fur of muskrats and North American beavers has a very defined layered structure of outer guard hairs and a thick, dense underfur that offers waterproof insulation that rivals or bests the efficiency of any synthetic garment. The size and quality of beaver fur made it such an important commodity during the time of European colonization into North America that political and economic alliances revolved around the trapping industry of this single species
Muskrats and beavers today are often viewed as nuisances, however, as their burrowing activity for bank dens can weaken and damage the structural integrity of earthen pond and lake dams, while their constructed open water “huts” or “lodges” can introduce debris and effect the aesthetics of decorative water bodies. The most obvious source of conflict with humans stems from the beaver’s natural instinct to respond to the sound of flowing water and attempt to make it stop. This may be expressed by these intrepid engineers building dams to impound the channels of creeks and rivers or by plugging the outlet structures and spillways of man-made reservoirs and ponds with sticks and mud. The results of such activity often lead to flooding and damage to adjacent property that, for some reason, the people living nearby don’t seem to appreciate.
These furbearers might not be viewed with the same reverence today as back when fortunes could be made from their pelts, but their presence on the landscape still fills important roles in Ohio’s ecosystem.
Tommy Springer is the wildlife and education specialist for the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at 740-653-8154 or at Tommy.Springer@fairfieldswcd.org