Win­ter is a good time to watch for Arkansas furbear­ers

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RIVER VALLEY & OZARK EDITION - BY KEITH SUT­TON Con­tribut­ing Writer

My job re­quires me to drive thou­sands of miles in Arkansas each year. To stay alert while trav­el­ing from one place to an­other, I spend a lot of time watch­ing for wildlife along the road­ways.

Most of the an­i­mals I see are com­mon birds such as crows, hawks, doves and water­fowl, or our ever-plen­ti­ful white-tailed deer. Dur­ing win­ter, how­ever, the ab­sence of thick fo­liage al­lows me to catch glimpses of many crea­tures, par­tic­u­larly dif­fer­ent types of furbear­ers, that I see much more rarely dur­ing other sea­sons.

On one re­cent trip, for ex­am­ple, I spied three river ot­ters frol­ick­ing play­fully along a farm ir­ri­ga­tion ditch. When I stopped and looked down the canal with binoc­u­lars, I could also see a beaver swim­ming with a leafy branch in its mouth, and a mink hunt­ing frogs and mice along the shore.

I saw more furbear­ers while driv­ing home that evening af­ter sun­set. A fat rac­coon wad­dled across one ru­ral road, and I was also treated to brief sight­ings of a beau­ti­ful coy­ote, a gray fox and even a bob­cat.

As you travel in Arkansas this win­ter, keep your eyes peeled, and per­haps you’ll see some of the com­mon Nat­u­ral State furbear­ers de­scribed in the fol­low­ing para­graphs. If you read and learn about their habits and life his­tory here, per­haps the en­counter will be even more mem­o­rable than usual.

RIVER OT­TER

Thirty years ago, I rarely saw river ot­ters dur­ing my trav­els, but these play­ful crea­tures have be­come in­creas­ingly abun­dant along the state’s wooded wa­ter­ways in re­cent decades, and I of­ten spot them when driv­ing slowly along creeks, rivers and ditches.

The river ot­ter is an ex­cep­tion­ally fine swim­mer and feeds largely on fish, frogs and cray­fish. Some sport fish­er­men dis­like the ot­ter be­cause it eats fish, but stud­ies show that the bulk of its diet is rough fish, which are more eas­ily cap­tured.

Arkansas ot­ters pro­duce one an­nual lit­ter of one to six young some­time from Jan­uary through March.

RAC­COON

For the most part, the fa­mil­iar rac­coon is a crea­ture of the night, but dur­ing the cold months, it is of­ten seen out and about in day­time as it tries to fill its belly to stay warm. The masked ban­dit fa­vors bot­tom­land hard­wood stands but is also com­mon in wooded up­lands, farm­lands and densely wooded res­i­den­tial ar­eas. The rac­coon rarely ven­tures far from wa­ter.

One to seven young are born from April to Au­gust. When grown, they will eat plant foods such as fruits, nuts and gar­den pro­duce, and an­i­mal foods such as in­sects, cray­fish, clams, fish, frogs, snakes and oc­ca­sional small mam­mals, plus bird and tur­tle eggs.

BOB­CAT

This short-tailed cat is sel­dom seen as a re­sult of its se­cre­tive habits but oc­curs through­out the state in a wide va­ri­ety of habi­tats. Adults vary greatly in size, but a weight of 15 to 35 pounds is typ­i­cal.

Bob­cat kit­tens, usu­ally two, are born in a den un­der a log, in a cave or un­der an up­turned tree from March through early May. The bob­cat’s most im­por­tant foods

are rab­bits, squir­rels and small ro­dents. Although ca­pa­ble of killing deer, bob­cats rarely do so.

BEAVER

The beaver was trapped to vir­tual ex­tinc­tion in Arkansas by 1900. But to­day, thanks to a suc­cess­ful rein­tro­duc­tion ef­fort decades ago, these wa­terlov­ing mam­mals live in all 75 coun­ties here. That’s a good-news, bad-news sit­u­a­tion. Beavers may dam­age agri­cul­tural and for­est lands by damming streams and felling valu­able tim­ber. On the other hand, their dams sta­bi­lize stream flows and con­trol runoff while con­vert­ing rel­a­tively dry ar­eas into lush wet­lands that are home to many wet­land an­i­mals.

The largest of our North Amer­i­can ro­dents, the beaver feeds pri­mar­ily on the in­ner bark of woody plants. One to eight fully furred young are born in April, May or June.

MUSKRAT

Muskrats are com­mon in Arkansas’ slow-mov­ing wa­ter­ways, ponds and swamps. They build their houses out of veg­e­ta­tion or dig their homes in stream or pond banks. Fe­males be­gin breed­ing their first year and may pro­duce up to six lit­ters of one to 11 young each year.

In some ar­eas, muskrats be­come se­ri­ous pests, caus­ing con­sid­er­able dam­age by bur­row­ing into lev­ees and banks on fish ponds. For­tu­nately, they are eas­ily

con­trolled by trap­ping. They feed pri­mar­ily on aquatic plants but also eat cray­fish, mus­sels and car­rion.

NUTRIA

The nutria is an im­ported, wa­ter-lov­ing ro­dent, half­way in size be­tween a beaver and a muskrat. It is orig­i­nally from South Amer­ica, but the species has moved into Arkansas from Louisiana, where it was first in­tro­duced in 1938. The nutria is now well es­tab­lished in marshes, slow streams, ponds and lakes in eastern and south­ern parts of Arkansas.

Nu­trias eat cat­tails, bul­rushes, var­i­ous grasses and also field crops. Two to 11 young may be pro­duced two to three times an­nu­ally. In­ter­est­ingly, the fe­male’s mam­mary glands are lo­cated along the sides of her back rather than her belly. This per­mits her to swim and feed while she nurses her young.

MINK

The lit­tle mink is com­mon along brushy wa­ter­ways all over Arkansas, where it feeds on muskrats, frogs, fish, cray­fish, in­sects, mus­sels and small mam­mals. Male minks are con­sid­er­ably larger than fe­males.

One to 11 young are born some­time be­tween Fe­bru­ary and late May in a nest un­der tree roots, logs or stumps, or

in an old muskrat or nutria bur­row.

COY­OTE

Although the coy­ote now oc­curs in all of Arkansas’

coun­ties, it wasn’t un­til 1940 that the species be­gan to spread through the state from the west. Cre­ation of more open lands al­lowed the coy­ote to ex­tend its range through­out Arkansas by the early 1960s, and to­day the an­i­mal is com­mon in brushy fields, sec­ond-growth wood­lots and for­est-edge habi­tat statewide.

The coy­ote’s high-pitched howls are of­ten heard at night when the an­i­mal is most ac­tive. It feeds on a va­ri­ety of foods, rang­ing from small mam­mals, birds and in­sects to mel­ons and dead poul­try. Two to 10 pups are born be­tween late April and early May.

RED AND GRAY FOXES

The red fox oc­curs through­out Arkansas’ up­land woods and farm­lands. It is an im­por­tant ex­ter­mi­na­tor of rats and mice. Although some sports­men and poul­try rais­ers de­test the lit­tle preda­tor be­cause of its al­leged de­struc­tion of chick­ens and quail, food-habits stud­ies show that such dam­age is usu­ally slight. A lit­ter of one to 11 young is pro­duced in March or April.

The gray fox is nei­ther as col­or­ful, fast or bold as the red fox but is hand­some in its own right. The two species are eas­ily sep­a­rated with just a look at the tail, which in the gray fox is tipped in black. The red fox has a white tail tip. Adults of both species usu­ally weigh only 8 to 10 pounds.

Gray foxes in­habit hard­wood forests and brushy farm­lands through­out Arkansas, where they feed on small mam­mals, birds, in­sects and fruits. They den in hol­low trees and logs, rock crevices and brush piles, and read­ily climbs trees, un­like any other mem­ber of the dog fam­ily. One to 10 young are born from late March through May.

PHO­TOS BY KEITH SUT­TON/CON­TRIBUT­ING PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

This nutria was pho­tographed on the road­side by a lake in Arkansas Post Na­tional Mon­u­ment in south­east Arkansas. Keep­ing a cam­era handy of­ten pro­duces good shots like this when a furbearer is seen.

Bob­cats are more com­mon than any other species of wild fe­line in the Amer­i­cas, but see­ing one of these se­cre­tive furbear­ers is a rare treat.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Com­mis­sion re­stocked beavers in the state af­ter the species was over­trapped and al­most wiped out.

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