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Aug. 4, 2022

Beavers (Drought and Wildfire Superheroes!) with Emily Fairfax

Beavers (Drought and Wildfire Superheroes!) with Emily Fairfax

Scale a beaver dam with me and Dr. Emily Fairfax, beaver researcher, ecohydrologist, assistant professor at CSU Channel Islands, and science communicator extraordinaire who has been featured on NPR's Science Friday and All Things Considered. In this episode, you'll hear us discuss ecosystem engineers, what beavers eat, the best time of year to look for beaver dams, the North American Fur Trade, how beavers can permanently change landscapes, rodents of unusual size, what it means to be a keystone species, dam building, the fish that live in beaver ponds, what beavers do with those flat tails, natural infinity pools, the difference between a dam and a lodge, and why beavers are drought and wildfire superheroes. 

Here are some helpful resources:

Emily's amazing stop-motion video on beavers and wildfire

Bay Nature article on human-beaver interactions in California

USDA Factsheet on invasive nutria

WorldAtlas on how beavers build dams

Leave it to Beaver

Emily's talk for California Naturalist's CONES speaker series

You can find me on Instagram or TikTok @goldenstatenaturalist

You can support me on Patreon at www.patreon.com/michellefullner

My website is www.goldenstatenaturalist.com

The theme song is called "i dunno" by grapes, and you can find it and the Creative Commons license here

--- This episode is sponsored by · Anchor: The easiest way to make a podcast. https://anchor.fm/app

Transcript

Beavers with Emily Fairfax 

Note: This transcript was made by a machine and not reviewed by a human. I hope it's still helpful! 

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

beaversdambeaver damwaterplantstreesrodentwetlandbeaver pondsanimalsemilyfishwillowsbigcaliforniapondwildfireriverfirekeystone species

Transcript:

Profile icon of Michelle Fullner
Michelle Fullner
0:00
Hello and welcome to Golden State naturalist, a podcast for anyone who read the Lion the Witch in the wardrobe as a kid and then spent decades believing that beavers eat fish. I'm Michelle Fullner and today it's all about the beavs. In this episode, you'll hear my conversation with Dr. Emily Fairfax about ecosystem engineers why beavers are drought and wildfire superheroes the best time of year to look for beaver dams, the North American fur trade how beavers can permanently change landscapes, rodents of unusual size, what it means to be a keystone species dam building the fish that live in Beaver ponds. What beavers do with those flat tails, natural infinity pools the difference between a dam and a lodge and of course, what beavers actually eat. It's not fish really quick before we get to that, don't forget to subscribe to make sure you stay up to date on new episodes. If you're listening on Apple podcasts, you can do that by hitting the little plus sign in the upper right hand corner of your screen. Also, I make this podcast totally independently, which is possible thanks to the beautiful humans supporting me on Patreon. You can join them for as little as $4 a month and when you do you get all kinds of cool bonuses like audio and video extras, as well as behind the scenes updates. You can find me on Patreon at www.patreon.com/michelle Fullner. That's Michelle with two L's and Fullner is fu ll en er if you want to support the show without spending any money. You can also leave a review wherever you listen, that's great because it helps more people find the show. The other thing you can do is share your favorite episode with a friend, family member Facebook group nature subreddit or that colleague you always notice making little doodles of birds during meetings if you want to see what outdoorsy things I'm up to you can find me on social media at Golden State naturalist on both Instagram and Tiktok. My website is www dot Golden State naturalist.com One last thing before we get on with the episode, I just want to remind you that this is the final episode of season one which I can't actually quite comprehend. After this, I'll be putting a pause on releasing new episodes until the fall but I'll still be busy working on the podcast during the season break mainly traveling across the state to record interviews, turning those interviews into episodes and finally getting merch up and running. You can also expect to hear from me with updates and some new content at some point during that break. So keep an eye out for that. But now let's get to the episode Dr. Fairfax earned her PhD in geological sciences from University of Colorado Boulder with certificates in both hydraulic sciences and college teaching. She's an assistant professor at CSU Channel Islands has been featured more times on NPR than you can shake a nod Willow stick at including Science Friday and all things considered and has published multiple peer reviewed articles about beavers. You may have already seen a very cool stop motion video she made about a little beef and a wildfire. So without further ado, let's hear from Dr. Emily Fairfax on Golden State naturalist.
EF
Emily Fairfax
3:20
All around us is the beaver wetland or the beaver complex and we have cat tails that are blooming with their little cat tail puffs and there's greenery everywhere. There's all sorts of shrubs and weeds and reeds around our feet more than I could identify honestly, we have willow trees that are fully leafed out cottonwoods birds everywhere. Red winged blackbirds, they let us know that they're here. They like this area a lot.
Profile icon of Michelle Fullner
Michelle Fullner
3:46
I just saw massive Bumblebee. Yep, huge bees and some dragon flies buzzing around. It's just
EF
Emily Fairfax
3:52
tons of little baby fishes and baby frogs in the water there. It's super clear water right now. All that fine sediment settle down onto the bottom. So it's like looking into just absolutely clear water.
Profile icon of Michelle Fullner
Michelle Fullner
4:01
What you're hearing here is from my conversation with Emily back in May, we met up in a Tuscadero which is just about 20 minutes north of San Luis Obispo and a little further inland. She just described what the lush beaver wetland area is like, but I cannot emphasize enough how different that area was from the immediately adjacent area right outside of the trees lining the stream. On the other side of those trees. The ground was dusty and dry the grass yellow even this early in the year, there was some living vegetation but most of it was already large enough to be well established with small forbs and seedling trees having basically no chance at survival with such little water. Emily guided me through that dry area which is actually a floodplain and into this wetland oasis. We stood just below the beaver dam with our feet in the water.
EF
Emily Fairfax
4:52
And then hidden in the background is the beavers Dam and the beaver has created all of this environment. If you go upstream or downstream, just out of here it looks completely different. And
Profile icon of Michelle Fullner
Michelle Fullner
5:01
it's wild because I feel like I'm standing, you know, one of those like rooftop infinity pools, we're at a level wet like three feet below the water that's up there just beside us. And it's because the dam is there. And it's bizarre because I'm looking at water almost at my eye level, like not quite. But there's also water at my feet down here.
EF
Emily Fairfax
5:19
Yeah, they do such an incredible job of storing that water and holding it back and then letting it through slowly. So you get this sort of step shaped profile as you go down the stream of pool and then dip and then pool and then dip and and pool and then dip. And when they're doing that, that's sort of that slowing is what lets the water creep out into the soil. And then ultimately, water all of these plants that we see around us that are still green, that aren't feeling the effects of us not having hardly any precipitation this year.
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Michelle Fullner
5:45
Right. It's amazing. And so when I was walking out here, I don't think that I would have probably noticed, right, so like, What signs do you look for? When you're looking for beavers?
EF
Emily Fairfax
5:56
Yeah, it's totally tucked away. So the things that I look for, I start a little bit different than a lot of people. I start with aerial images. So I open up Google Maps or Google Earth, and then I start looking at the rivers. And I look for these big green splotches. Because the other places on the river aren't green. But where we have the beavers, it definitely is green. Still,
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Michelle Fullner
6:14
I just want to emphasize that Emily is saying that on a river or on a stream, it actually looks different where beavers are, it's not just that it's green, everywhere along the river or along the stream. It's green, where the beavers build their dams in their complexes.
EF
Emily Fairfax
6:30
So I look for that. And then once I think I found somewhere where there's a big pond, and it looks like maybe there's a dam, then I'll go visit it on ground, and I'm looking for trees that have been chewed by the beavers, I'm looking for that dam, which is pretty obvious. Nobody else makes that except people and beavers. I'm looking for ponded water, I'm looking for water, that sort of sneaking out into the floodplain around it because the Beavers are digging these little canals. And really what I'm looking for is something that looks engineered. Yeah, just not by us.
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Michelle Fullner
6:56
So do you see chewed wood like as you're looking around right now? Or is it kind of out of sight from us,
EF
Emily Fairfax
7:02
I can see some trees would definitely on the dam itself, but then there's some chewed wood back in the willows, we walked by quite a bit on the way down here probably should have pointed that out. But it's actually a little harder to see right now, because of how much greenery there is, and the food that beavers like to chew on. It's Willow, mostly in Cottonwood. And both of those trees, when they get chewed on by the beavers, as soon as the next growing season happens, they put out tons of new shoots. And so it's sort of like a bush grows right on top of that little beaver chewed stump, and you won't see it as easily, because the tree is regenerating itself super fast.
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Michelle Fullner
7:33
So almost, you'd have to start instead of looking for the chewed stump, you'd have to start looking for a bushy shaped tree instead, as a clue.
EF
Emily Fairfax
7:41
Yep. And then if you push aside all the branches that you can see at the middle, there's like this little core where the beaver chewed last year's version of it, it's actually a lot easier to see the tooth sticks when you come out in winter, when all the leaves are off. Sure. So that's when you come out and do that kind of searching in this condition. Like it's hard, because it's so green, which is good.
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Michelle Fullner
7:57
Yeah. So you go and scout it out. When it's all all the leaves are off. Yep. And so I noticed that some of the trees closest to the water are a lot smaller. And then like just one step back, there are some bigger ones. Is that anything to do with the beavers? Like, did they choose some of the ones that were closer to the water
EF
Emily Fairfax
8:15
part of it. So a lot of these really big trees that you see, they're super, super old, and they are out on the floodplain as well. So that whole area we walked through that was really dry and dusty, really, it shouldn't be wet. It should not be that dry. It should be kind of like this. But the water situation in California is pretty rough right now, especially with losing groundwater and taking that out. So all those trees, they're sort of an artifact of what this river looked like before it was so heavily modified. So there are some still that are kind of close to this beaver wetland area just up there. Most of the ones that are sort of absent from this place is because they've died on their own right? The beavers, they when they have this kind of small vegetation around them, they're not going to work on their giant trees. It's so much work for them and it's a lot more dangerous and they get less calories forever. So they don't prefer to chew those gigantic trees and they definitely don't prefer
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Michelle Fullner
9:02
oak. Okay. Oh, interesting. Oak is not their jam.
EF
Emily Fairfax
9:06
They want some sugary soft.
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Michelle Fullner
9:08
Okay, okay, cool. If you listen to the oak episode, you know, I'm a huge fan of oak trees, and I sing the praises of them and how they support food webs by being a keystone plant and supporting all kinds of different insects life. This though is a great example of why we need more than one type of plant even if that one plant is amazing, like an oak tree. Beavers don't like oak trees, they prefer willows. And so even if willows don't feed as many insect species directly as an oak tree, they're still supporting another animal that is in itself a keystone species and is contributing hugely to the ecosystem. I'll get a little bit more into keystone species later in this episode, but just know that a wide variety of native plants is really needed and important. Let's hear a little bit more about exactly what beavers Eat. And so what part of the tree are they eating? Because they're not just like chowing down on wood, right? Like, what is it that they eat,
EF
Emily Fairfax
10:06
not intentionally chowing down on the wood, they their preferred part is the cambium, which is the sugary layer between the outer bark and the wood itself. And on bigger trees and branches, you can see them scraping the bark off and they'll eat that to get the sugary pieces on the really little branches and twigs. They do just chow down the whole thing. And it's not worth the effort to like separate it. Yeah. Which is also fine for them, because they've evolved an outstanding gut where they can eat it, excrete it, eat it again. It's only one recycling. And then they're done. So they can really maximize the nutrients they're getting, even when they're on a more wood heavy diet. Wow.
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Michelle Fullner
10:40
Is there research on like, their biome? What's going on in there? Probably, but I haven't looked at it. Okay. Yeah, that's fascinating. Yeah. Because like, I don't think that will work out really well. For us. If
EF
Emily Fairfax
10:49
we tried that. We would not do well, too much fiber.
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Michelle Fullner
10:54
After doing some googling on this topic, I can confidently say that only people who know a lot more Latin words than me have ever researched the beaver digestive tract. But I think they kind of get it basically beavers are what's called hind gut fermenters. So basically, they use the lower part of their digestive tract, and they shove all of this low quality food into it. So woody bits of trees, and they have a relationship with a beneficial bacteria that helps them actually ferment the food that is in their digestive tract, which allows them to get more nutrients out of it than they could without that relationship with the bacteria. Also, apparently, it helps to do this twice. So after it goes out of their body, they'll eat it again. And then they'll be done with it. I have to say that I'm not super comforted by the fact that they only eat their own poop once but you know what, it's a hard world out there and beavers got to make their way in it somehow at this point, Emily and I decided to get a little bit closer to the beaver dam and take a better look at it. Okay, here we go into the water.
EF
Emily Fairfax
12:01
So right back in that corner, you'll be able to see I actually have a game camera up on one of the trees, real gamble with fevers because you never know when they're gonna take the tree. Yeah. But then also back in that corner. The reason we have the game cam there is this is where the beavers come down every day. So they come over that dam. And then they cruise through this little pool and then they'll head downstream or out into the sort of floodplain and start foraging for food and gathering building materials and going about their beaver lives. And then they go back up that corner as well. It's very sheltered. It's very safe for them. And the deep water gives
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Michelle Fullner
12:31
them cover. Oh, nice. And what kind of time of day can you expect to see them doing that
EF
Emily Fairfax
12:34
these beavers at this site? They are mostly out from dusk until dawn. But beavers are kind of unique in that they'll adapt to whatever is safest at a given site. Okay, so there's some places where beavers come out during the day. There's some places where they're completely nocturnal. There's some where they're like portions of the day either end. It's really you don't know until you go monitor a site what those beavers like to do. Wow, typically a dusk and nighttime animal but it's definitely not like rule of thumb.
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Michelle Fullner
12:57
Yeah. Oh, interesting. They're not like bats were like has to be at a certain time of day. That time of day for bats is called nighttime. That's when bats can remain hidden from their predators and use echolocation to find their prey. Although National Geographic tells me that there are a couple of species of bats that can be seen hunting during the day. So that's interesting. But back to beavers. I was looking at this pond and I was really curious about how deep it was
EF
Emily Fairfax
13:21
totally varies. There are places in the pond where it at this water level is probably about five to six feet deep. A lot of it hovers around the three feet deep mark but the beavers in addition to building this dam, they're constantly digging in the mud. And so they will dig out parts of it and you'll be walking along and suddenly you'll just like sink wow that they've dug at the bottom of their pond.
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Michelle Fullner
13:40
Do they dive down and dig it out? Wow. How long can they hold their breath?
EF
Emily Fairfax
13:44
About 15 minutes a day? Yep. So they can do that for quite a while and it makes it really tricky, especially when it's deeper and you just can't see through the water that deep. It's just optical thickness. You don't know so when you're stepping like always step very slow in the main beaver pond because you don't know if your foots gonna land on the ground or if it's gonna keep on going down for a while. I've definitely been out there in waiters thinking I knew this pond super well because I've come here so often. Yeah, took a step and almost flooded my waders because I thought I was going in, like, deep. And suddenly it was almost neck deep. And I was like, oh,
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Michelle Fullner
14:14
oh, wow, that's pretty
EF
Emily Fairfax
14:17
shocking. Yeah. I was glad I had my field team with me because I was like, I need to get out of the pond and I can't move someone airlift
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Michelle Fullner
14:24
me. Yeah. So this is maybe a very ignorant question. But like, they don't live in this.
EF
Emily Fairfax
14:30
They do not live in the dam. They live in a lodge, okay, which looks like a big dome of sticks that they've chewed out little rooms inside of
Profile icon of Michelle Fullner
Michelle Fullner
14:36
so they just pile sticks and then they chew it out. They don't like construct the rooms and they're
EF
Emily Fairfax
14:40
not really I mean, they sort of make a dome ish shape. But in general, they're going in and they're sort of making these gaps for themselves and then making it larger and they bring in grasses and fluffy stuff to the lay on like betting and it's much comfier than the dam. The dam is just a like a brutalist structure of sticks and stones and mud.
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Michelle Fullner
14:58
So I wanted to get a sense of what The inside of a beaver lodge looked like and I found a lot of pictures online that are sort of dark and show a very low room with a dirt floor and a bunch of sticks overhead, it's a lot easier to see what's going on by looking at cross section diagrams by artists. And in those, you can see that the underwater Foundation is a big pile of rocks and sticks. And then there are one or two entrances that the beavers have carved out and go into a room inside the lodge. Also, while googling this, I found out that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has a full size beaver lodge, people can actually look inside. It's in their museum in Detroit and to my cousin Rick, who lives in Detroit. If you're listening and you've taken your kids to this museum, please send pictures, but it's a little difficult to get a sense of the scale of one of these lodges without actually having seen a beaver in person. Thus my next question, how big is a beaver?
EF
Emily Fairfax
15:49
Oh, good question. So an adult beaver is going to be anywhere from 40 to max of 110 pounds. So mid range, big rodents Wow. The bigger ones tend to be in colder climates because they need to be a little bit heftier to make it through the winter. The ones here I'd say on average, probably 6070 pounds.
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Michelle Fullner
16:05
For reference, my dog weighs 70 pounds. And every time someone sees him, they go, Wow, big dog.
EF
Emily Fairfax
16:10
The babies though. And they're very firstborn kits. They look like guinea pig size, which is super sweet. It's adorable, super vulnerable when they're that small. But as they grow and they stay home with their parents for anywhere from two to three years, they get bigger and bigger and bigger and stronger. And then around three years old, they get kicked out to go start throwing beaver lives. But even then they're a little bit smaller. So beavers grow pretty slowly, and they don't reach that sort of max capacity size until they're solidly in adult. And are they born in the lodge they are okay, and they'll stay in the lodge for the first couple months or so they like mom does not trust them swimming out there yet mama understandable. But then once they're old enough to swim around and follow their parents, they'll like start shadowing and following mom and dad around and playing with each other. And once they're between like one and two to three years old, then they're really learning from their parents. Yeah, following they're building the dam with them, they're going to harvest food, they're roughhousing with their siblings, dam buildings, totally instinctual. So they'll do it. If they've never seen a dam before they will do it if they've never seen another beaver before. But the fact that they do spend a couple years at home with their parents, like they do get to practice in a sort of safer environment. So they do get better at it by mom and dad.
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Michelle Fullner
17:14
So they'll build a more competent structure probably than if they just did it based on instinct. Yeah. Okay. Why do they have the flat tails? Do they use those when they build the dance?
EF
Emily Fairfax
17:24
So a lot of people think they like packed down the mud with their tail, because it feels like it should do that. They don't. It's mostly a rudder for when they're swimming. Okay, so it helps them navigate very quickly and agilely. And like smoothly through the water.
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Michelle Fullner
17:37
Uh huh. And so they're really good water animals inland like real lumbering and silly.
EF
Emily Fairfax
17:42
I mean, that's like 70 to 80 pound, probably ball of rodent. It's very spherical. And they have these little webbed back feet, and then like grabby raccoon hands, and this gigantic paddle tail. And so like, imagine if you had all that on you. And you're trying to walk through this landscape with all these trees and brush and everything like so awkward. Yeah. And that's why they did canals is because they know they're super awkward. They know that any predator would be happy to have them like chicken nugget out there on the landscape. And so they did these canals, the canals fill with water, and then it's like these little water highways that they can jump in and zoom around and be safe.
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Michelle Fullner
18:15
So the way I found out about Emily was actually through a California naturalist online speaker series that they do. It's called cones. Definitely Google that and I will link Emily's in the show notes. But before I went to that event, I had no idea that beavers dug canals, I just thought that they did dams. That's it. And I kind of actually thought that they lived in the dams, which is not a real thing. But based on the pictures I'm looking at online, it looks like the channels are really narrow and pretty long. And this is one of the ways that beavers help spread water around a general area and create a wetland. And as Emily points out, it also helps them escape from predators. Because once
EF
Emily Fairfax
18:51
they're in the water, there's very, very few predators that could actually get them because they're fast, are very fast and very skilled in the water, the best predator at getting beavers as wolves, and that's because they have pack hunting and so they can sort of cut off some of those escape routes to work but like anything else that's chasing a beaver. Once it's in the water, it's so much more effort to try to catch it. It's usually worth it. We can go a little closer to the dam if you want you can touch it, walk I love that guy. Be careful walking on the dam not because it's gonna break Beaver Dam moose walk across them bears walk across. I'm not here. Obviously we're not that wild here. But they can hold a lot of weight. The dangerous part is they are made out of sharpened sticks. So you don't want to slip because you would be
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Michelle Fullner
19:30
impaled impaled. Not great. See if there's
EF
Emily Fairfax
19:33
an easy way up. cat tail in here.
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Michelle Fullner
19:37
We stopped when we got right to the foot of the dam.
EF
Emily Fairfax
19:41
And you can see it is made entirely out of all of these sticks. And you can see as well which sticks had been recently added versus which ones are older. To the older ones. They look a little bit sunbleached they're kind of gray on the tips, but looking around. Some of them look like they're really freshly stripped of their bark. Yeah. or they have a little bit of an orange tip on the cut. And that's something that they've probably cut down this season and added on to it. There's tons of vegetation growing on the dam itself right now, which makes it less sort of picturesque as a beaver dam. But in terms of the structure and the function, it's actually really helpful because if you have a high flow, those plant roots help hold the structure together now
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Michelle Fullner
20:20
nice. So it's less vulnerable to flooding, like breaking from flooding.
EF
Emily Fairfax
20:24
So like in places where beavers are not being disturbed, particularly often, like up in the high Rocky Mountain area, or in Canada, in the far north, the plants start to grow on the beaver dams. And over time, it sort of just becomes a giant piece of the landscape. Even if the beavers leave, it'll still hold the water, the pond will still be there, it becomes really permanent.
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Michelle Fullner
20:43
That is fantastic. So it's just sort of, it's just a new feature. As Emily mentioned, there are sharpened sticks everywhere on a beaver dam, so we unplugged from each other while we climbed up to the top. Thankfully, no one was hurt. We're on top of the Beaver Dam, we did it,
EF
Emily Fairfax
21:00
we are on top of the dam.
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Michelle Fullner
21:01
And we're just noticing all kinds of cool stuff like the water trickling over the top, it doesn't go down through it goes over the top,
EF
Emily Fairfax
21:07
it does both, okay, the water is going to be slowly seeping through the dam, that there's lots of mud in there. So it's kind of like when water goes through the groundwater system or the soil takes a long time. It can also kind of trickle over which is what we're hearing. And then it actually is also going around so the beavers have dug canals that connect to this upstream and downstream part. And water slowly flows along those pathways too. So there's always water going past this dam. It also does go straight into the groundwater right behind this dam and then springs out down there. So when the water level is was lower when this was more recently established, there were places where I could see the groundwater like springing up in the sand down there. It's totally flooded now so you can't see anymore, right? But the water is always moving through it goes over under around these are not impermeable structures. Sure.
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Michelle Fullner
21:49
And that's a feature not a bug that is a major bug. The National Environmental Education Foundation has a page on their website called Leave It to Beaver and the page says new research reveals that beaver dams are helping to clean pollution from streams and rivers dams slow the passage of water through a river and can act as a natural filter. ponds, which grow from water backed up by the dam can suspend sediment and pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus. These pollutants can be dangerous to the environment and large amounts, but the beaver dams can lower the impact to some extent, pretty amazing. It goes on to say beavers are manipulating their environment, which in turn has the added benefit of cleaning the water supply. And by making these ponds, they're also creating more habitat for fish. What are some of the biggest fish? Do you ever see like large fish in here? Or?
EF
Emily Fairfax
22:36
Yes, fish love beaver ponds in general, because if especially young fish, if you're young fish and you're kind of weak, your job to survive is to get big and strong. And every ounce of energy you spend swimming against the current takes away from that. And you're constantly looking for food. But in Beaver ponds, the water is so slow, and it's deep. So the predators can't really get to you. And it's absolutely teeming with life. Like I can see about a trillion water bugs right now. This is like swimming casually in a buffet. Yeah, for months for these fish. So they get super big and they bulk up. And then when they need to move upstream or downstream to spawn. If it's one of the anatomist fish,
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Michelle Fullner
23:13
there's a lot more on anatomist fish in the salmon episode. But if you're not sure what one is, and Adam is just means a fish that migrates up a river from the sea to spawn,
EF
Emily Fairfax
23:23
then they can do that. And they have this advantage of having spent so much of their lives sort of not stressed and just
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Michelle Fullner
23:28
feasting. And how do the anonymous fish get past this? Super easy.
EF
Emily Fairfax
23:32
A lot of them jumped right over it. I mean, these fish have been living with beavers for several million years now. The ones that couldn't jump past to Beaver Dam would not have made it through evolution, they can jump over, they can also take those canals that go around. Okay, that's a really common way that the fish get passed. And if you look at the life cycles of a lot of these anatomist fish that go in and out when they're doing that journey, they're often doing it at times when the beaver dams or naturally having more water come over them or through them around them higher water times. So there's sort of this already established balance. It's less of a leap. Yeah. But also like these fish are strong, we see them go up waterfalls, like sure it's impressive, but it's like three to five feet tall. Not a big deal. We've seen turtles walk up this dam that are very small. And if those little turtles can make it, I'm pretty sure these strong fish can make it Yeah, well,
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Michelle Fullner
24:19
like humans, we think we're pretty cool, but I just struggled to crawl up the stage. We're not. So you pointed out a couple of the tree species that they thrive on. So can you show me like which one is which?
EF
Emily Fairfax
24:31
Yes. So the cottonwoods are going to be those taller ones. Okay, that have a back there? Yep. Okay. And then the willows are the shorter ones that have lots of skinny stems coming out of it. And so those spindly leaves.
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Michelle Fullner
24:43
So Cal scape.org lists a couple of types of cottonwoods, native to California, but generally, they're really tall trees with heart shaped leaves. They also require a lot of water, so definitely don't plan on in your yard unless you live close to a stream or wetland of some kind. I I also looked for willows on Cal scape and 84 things match that search. So definitely not all of them are actually trees. A lot of things just have Willow in the name apparently. But from what I could see most of the actual trees that are willows seem to have those long, spindly leaves, like Emily talked about
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Emily Fairfax
25:17
the willow is their absolute favorite. Because it's easy, it's small, they can drag it around super quick with them really sugary barks, it's great for that, the cottonwoods. They like to use that when they're building. So you'll see a little bit more of these bigger woody pieces on the dam. But if you look down on this edge, you can see some of their food piled up. That's what those little ATV skinny sticks are. That's like the beavers here working and snacking and working nice. And in cold places, which is not here. Don't make food caches actually into the harvest tons of these little food sticks, put them on the bottom of their pond weighed down with rocks and stuff. And then when winter comes in, the pond freezes over. It's like it's in the fridge. And so they can come out of their lodge, go through an underwater entrance, get their snacks, bring it back into the lodge and never go out on land. They are geniuses if you imagine a beaver on land already awkward. Now, in the winter, like they're brown, the snow is white and out be horrible for them is one of the highest mortality times for them is when you have fevers in cold climates, their first year on their own, they don't cash enough food. And they have to go out on the snow. And they're very vulnerable, then
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Michelle Fullner
26:17
that sounds really like I don't know if that's innate, or if they're super smart. Are they smart animals?
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Emily Fairfax
26:22
I think they're pretty smart. I mean, there's a lot of debate about how smart can a rodent be, which is fair, but the Beavers are doing a lot of different sort of landscape modifications that are working directly in their benefit. And I think a big part of why they've been so successful is because they are clever. And they can figure out their environment and design it so that they can thrive. So they're here in California, they're also up in the like far north of Canada. They're in the mountains, they're on the coasts, they're everywhere. The only other species that I'm aware of that can literally move into pretty much any environment and make it its own is us. Yeah. And they're definitely not as smart as us for really very smart people. But the Beavers are pretty remarkable in what they can do to make a home for themselves.
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Michelle Fullner
27:01
Yeah, well, I have to say though, I've tried to make a dam across a river like as a kid, not easy. No, I've never made it happen. Yeah, not even remotely not even like a little creek. Yeah, real challenge. No success whatsoever. So I have respect. Having tried it myself,
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Emily Fairfax
27:14
one of the ways that people are trying to work with beavers for restoration. So a lot of our streams really bad condition to the point where it's like not even particularly useful for beavers at that point. So we try to help them and attracts them to the site by building things called Beaver Dam analogs, which are fake beaver dams that people build. And they have varying degrees of success. And they're designed to be like an abandoned Beaver Dam. That's their goal. Because then when you do have beavers in the system, and they come through, and they see that and it's like teenage beaver going out to start its life for the first time. It comes across our beaver dams. We put so much effort into these brilliant beavers like this is terrible. I'm going to fix it and they do and they'll fix up Beaver Dam analogues I've seen plenty of Beaver Dam analog studies have to pivot kind of halfway through because beavers take over and it's like alright, well, this is no longer BDA steady, it's not a guarantee, they'll take it over. There's definitely times when the beaver looks at what we've done in there, like that is not worth my time. Or it's just not in the right place. But having seen PDAs and knowing people who build them like it's hard work for people, we're using hydraulic post pounders and like chainsaws and beavers are out there with their teeth and paws.
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Michelle Fullner
28:15
There's waddling, yes, wildland rolling, the images that I saw of bdaas, or Beaver Dam analogs, all had these vertical posts pounded into the stream across the stream bed. And then a bunch of organic materials sort of piled up between these posts to slow the flow of water, it is very clearly manmade, not made by a beaver. And I also found a website encouraging people making these PDAs to try to make postless PDAs. So not using those vertical posts because it's more similar to what the beavers actually create. I tried to find some pictures of this online, they were much harder to find, I think it's a lot less common way to do it. But I was curious about how that contrasted with how beavers actually build their dams. So here's a little description of their process. According to World Atlas, the beavers first nod away at the bark of trees and branches near the river or stream to allow them to fall on the flowing water body, blocking its flow and creating a diversion. This basic structure is then further strengthened by placing twigs, stones, leaves, branches, grasses, uprooted plants, and anything else the beaver manages to find on top of the base to build a superstructure. The beaver dams are usually five feet in height a few feet to over 330 feet in length, and the water reservoir resulting from the dam is usually 1.2 to 1.8 meters in depth. That's roughly four to six feet in depth.
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Emily Fairfax
29:34
When they first built this dam. They went from completely breached to having a water holding dam in like one to two weeks. Are you serious? And they've been working on it's much larger, right? It was then they'd been working so it was just
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Michelle Fullner
29:46
like lower down. We'll go all the way across but it was just low across this far. I'm really bad at measuring things. How many feet do
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Emily Fairfax
29:54
you ask? We've measured it. Perfect. So this one as of about five months ago was 100 Read feet long. And when they started, it was a little bit shorter because since the water level was lower, it didn't go quite far. Yeah, but it was long when it started, it was probably around 6070 feet long, maybe only a foot to a foot and a half tall. But now at its highest point, it's like five ish feet tall. It's hard to tell because the scour pool and the underwater part, but it's pretty tall. It's much more sturdy. Now a lot more mud and wood has been built into this a lot wider and
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Michelle Fullner
30:23
it settles probably over time, right? Like just gets all sunk in and all the roots you were talking about from these plants? Yep,
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Emily Fairfax
30:28
hold it there.
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Michelle Fullner
30:29
How many years did it take to get to this point?
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Emily Fairfax
30:32
This is about two years.
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Michelle Fullner
30:33
This is only two years, there were no beavers doing this
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Emily Fairfax
30:36
for years previously, but this dam was not in place. It was broken down little chunks of dam and their old primary dam used to be further upstream, okay, and they moved it down here. And when they started rebuilding, it was a little over two years ago. And they since then have been pretty successful in keeping this dam in place. The local community around here has been very protective of the size. Amazing. I love that. We stopped at a coffee shop this morning. There's a huge mural on this. So
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Michelle Fullner
30:58
I took a picture posted on my story on Instagram. I'm like, yes, it's gotta be over. Everyone
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Emily Fairfax
31:03
here loves it. A lot of people recreate down here. This is a popular swimming hole. It's popular fishing area. And does that bother the beavers? Not really, because people are coming out during the day. Yeah, and the Beavers are out during at night. Sometimes people will come down at night and want to watch them. But in that case, it's usually someone sitting quietly on the bank and then also
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Michelle Fullner
31:19
just being respectful. That's really cool. I like that. Yeah, people need that exposure, right? Like, as long as not hurting the animals go and see it and learn to love it. Because you you see it and you love
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Emily Fairfax
31:29
it and realizing like you want to go for a swim. And this is the only spot with water. And it's because of the Beaver. So if you harm the beavers, you're not gonna have a swimming hole.
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Michelle Fullner
31:36
And if you figure that out, then you want to protect the beavers. Exactly. Yeah, that is so cool. Just like the people living close to this beaver complex, in Atascadero, I'm now completely sold on protecting beavers. And in just a minute, you're gonna hear even more reasons why that's important, including beavers contributions when it comes to drought and wildfire. What the beaver wetland has in common with the Land of Oz what it means to be an ecosystem engineer and the keystone species and a little trip to Narnia. So stick around for that. But first, while you're here, I wanted to let you know that I'm going to be attending the UC California naturalist statewide conference in Tahoe City this October 7 through ninth and I would love to see you there. You don't have to be a California naturalist to attend the conference, which is going to have some amazing speakers, including Obi Kaufmann, who's an artist and poet who's authored several field atlases of the state, the most recent of which is called the coast of California. And then there'll be Jose Gonzalez, founder of Latino Outdoors. He's also an artist and a writer and has public school teacher routes, which I love. I'll have a table at the communities of practice session of the conference, and we'll be sharing about my experiences making this podcast so come talk to me, you may even end up being a featured soundbite in a future episode. So hope to see you there. Okay, now just a quick break.
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Michelle Fullner
33:16
And now on to the full interview with Emily. All right, we look for a shady spot where our butts wouldn't get wet. And that put us on the floodplain. Yes. Which is like a desert almost. It's so dry out here really
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Emily Fairfax
33:27
dry. Totally different. It's just sand and dust and only the deepest rooted trees that can access groundwater still,
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Michelle Fullner
33:35
and I was gonna start really basic. What is a beaver? How is it like a rodent? Is it like what? Yeah, is it different from other mammals?
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Emily Fairfax
33:47
So beaver is a rodent is the second largest rodent in the world. Second only to the Kathy Barra. It is native to North America. And there is a separate species of beaver that's native to Eurasia. Okay. They cannot interbreed anymore, but they look and act identically.
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Michelle Fullner
34:01
Wow, that's really interesting. They just diverged too much. But then they kept more or less all the same featurespace Super
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Emily Fairfax
34:08
usable features being able to engineer your own environment. So I don't think evolution would take that away, right?
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Michelle Fullner
34:12
No, for sure. Do people mix them up with any other animals?
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Emily Fairfax
34:15
Yes. So in California, especially we have invasive nutria is especially in like the Sacramento Delta area, which looks like a beaver, especially if it's in the water. The biggest difference is that nutria have like a rat tail. And beavers have a big paddle tail. And then nutria have these really prominent white whiskers and beavers typically a black whiskers, okay. nutria are completely invasive here and do not belong here. Beavers totally native here. So it's unfortunate that they look so similar and that there are so few huge semi aquatic rodents that like if you see a big one, you're just gonna think beaver Right? Or you're gonna think nutria and you could be wrong.
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Michelle Fullner
34:49
Okay, so funny story. At the time of this interview. I had never seen a nutria before. But then just a couple of weeks ago, I was on a road trip to Oregon for a wedding and my husband and my kid Tonight, we're driving into the parking lot in a loves close to the Oregon California border. And just off behind the loves. I looked out my window and I saw these giant rodents and I was like what? So I jumped out of the car. I mean, my husband stopped in the parking lot, and I jumped out. And I ran over to see what these giant rodents were. And I got just a couple of feet away from them, which maybe was not super bright, I don't know, but they were nutria. And these animals are smaller than beavers, I would say that they're like a very large house cat or maybe like a bobcat size, Mason, probably smaller than a bobcat, like a really large house cat. And this one that I saw on the grass behind this loves in Oregon had three little babies, and they were all just kind of munching on grass and like whatever little weeds were growing in the grass, but nutria here in North America are super problematic because they destroy the native plants in the wetland areas. And it actually ends up destroying the wetland itself. The reason they're here in the first place is because of the fur trade. And in the 1940s when the fur trade was no longer profitable, ranchers just sort of let the nutrient go. And so now they become a huge problem destroying wetlands here, because the ecosystem that they really belong in is in a different hemisphere. The plants that we have here didn't evolve alongside these nutria. And so they don't really have any natural defenses against them. Also, you might have seen one of two things you might have seen either The Princess Bride in which there is a giant man sized swamp rat that jumps out at Wesley and tax him looks a little bit like a nutria. But way, way, way bigger. Or you might have seen the 2017 documentary, also called rodents of unusual size, and that one is about nutria in Louisiana and how they're destroying the wetland which actually protects people there from hurricanes. So it's about people fighting back against these invasive nutria in Louisiana. In any event, they are very large rodents. Sometimes people call them swamp rats. Do the nutria do anything like the beavers do with building dams or anything like that. No,
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Emily Fairfax
36:59
beavers are the only dam builders. Oh,
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Michelle Fullner
37:01
just sort of like the defining feature of an oak tree as an acorn. It's like the defining feature of a beaver as a damn.
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Emily Fairfax
37:07
Yep. 100%. That's
Profile icon of Michelle Fullner
Michelle Fullner
37:08
really cool. So what is their natural range? You talked about how we have them in North America are they like all across North America?
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Emily Fairfax
37:14
Pretty much they are all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast. They're down in Mexico, and they go up to the Arctic Circle. They are in the mountains during the coasts, they're in estuaries, they're in deserts. They're literally everywhere.
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Michelle Fullner
37:25
Just a quick side note here. It's a common misconception that beavers are not native to California, or at least not to certain parts of California. And I just read an article called The historical range of beaver in coastal California and updated review of the evidence. This article goes into the evidence showing that beavers are actually historically found in all of these regions across California. So the theory is that when beaver populations were surveyed in the early 1900s, they were locally extinct from certain parts of California. And so the surveyors thought there were never beavers there. But if you look back further at the records, and at remains of animals in those areas, you actually can find plenty of evidence of beavers in the coastal regions and the Sierras. In California, which is where they were thought to not exist,
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Emily Fairfax
38:10
the only place they don't really thrive is the places where we have alligators and crocodiles because that is aquatic predator, sure, which doesn't work out well in their favorite so there's like there's some there but the population is quite small. beavers have been on North America for millions of years. And there's evidence that way back when the earth was way hotter, they were all the way up to like the tip top of the planet. Like Baffin Island, Ellesmere Island, kind of like super far north. Wow.
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Michelle Fullner
38:32
I said, Wow, here like I knew what Emily was talking about. But really, the mental map in my head of the world contains a rough idea of the continents. And on the top of North America, there's like Canada, but then at the top of Canada, it just fades away, because I don't really know what's happening up there. But some of the things that are happening up there are called Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island, and both of them are extremely far north very close to Greenland. So I didn't know why I was saying, well, but I was right to say, well,
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Emily Fairfax
39:01
and then as it gets colder and the ice sort of forms, they move back down south and then as that ice thaws, and it warms back up, they move back up north. So beavers have been all over this continent for a long time doing their work and leaving their footprint behind.
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Michelle Fullner
39:12
They have such a large range. Why don't we see more of them?
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Emily Fairfax
39:16
We don't see more of them, because they are still recovering from the European American fur trade. So prior to colonization of North America, there was anywhere from 100 to 400 million beavers on this continent, which is huge. Like that's a lot of beavers. It's estimated that if you were walking around, it's about a beaver for every single kilometer of habitable stream, which is a lot of beavers.
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Michelle Fullner
39:37
Yeah. I mean, we have 350 million Americans. Yes. So everybody gets better. I see people all the time. So
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Emily Fairfax
39:44
exactly. But then through the fair trade. It was an extremely extractive event. And there were intentional policies to create things called food deserts, which are basically where companies like Hudson Bay would say, eliminate every forbearing mammal in this entire watershed and they would go through and trappers would take out every single Beaver, they saw with the explicit intention of eliminating them why they wanted to have control over the first stocks, they wanted to have control over sort of movement of colonists into the West, it was just like this ridiculous abuse of an animal.
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Michelle Fullner
40:15
So I wanted to stop here and give a little overview of the North American fur trade. But as I researched it, I found that there's just so much information here. It's almost 200 years of history, and I can't do it justice in a quick aside, but essentially, what happened is that European beavers were hunted for their fur to the brink of extinction. And starting in the 1600s, for traders were coming here and extracting beavers in ridiculous numbers from North America as well, which cause the population to plummet, like Emily said,
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Emily Fairfax
40:47
and through that, and through those kinds of policies, we wound up going down from that peak of 100 to 400 million into the hundreds of 1000s. And it's today they're rebounding, but we're somewhere in the like 10 to 15, maybe up to 30 million range. So about 10%, the historic population.
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Michelle Fullner
41:03
Wow. Okay, this is one of the ones I'm most fascinated by is that I've heard this term ecosystem engineer. What do people mean when they say that?
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Emily Fairfax
41:11
So an ecosystem engineer in ecology is a term for an animal or a plant, that when it establishes itself in an environment, it is physically changing that environment to suit its own needs to beavers are kind of an extreme example of ecosystem engineers because they move into a river or stream or lake and they build dams, they did canals, they completely changed the way water moves through that system, which changes the plants, which changes the animals, which changes the water again. So they're creating this sort of positive feedback loop of change. And it ultimately will shift these really simple sort of river channels into highly complex, super active and wild and meandering and sort of messy river corridors where there's a lot more water and plants and animals spread out over a larger area.
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Michelle Fullner
41:54
Would you call it almost like a wetland? Yes, creating
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Emily Fairfax
41:57
it. I definitely call it a wetland.
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Michelle Fullner
41:59
It would be too embarrassing to go back and actually count but I'm pretty sure that Emily had used the term beaver wetland close to 10 times by this point in our conversation that is fascinating. And you you find probably some of the same plants that you'd find in like wetland areas.
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Emily Fairfax
42:11
I mean, cattails, for one, they're everywhere. We were just in cattails, probably twice as tall as me. And now up here on the floodplain. We're out of the beaver wetland, there's not a cat tail here. And you would be shocked to see what salutely But just you know, going into that environment that's been engineered by the beavers. It's totally a wetland environment.
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Michelle Fullner
42:26
It felt like Dorothy going into like the Land of Oz out of her house. It's completely or like going into Narnia. Yeah, no, it's kind of surreal. Narnia, right. So just go
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Emily Fairfax
42:36
through kind of like what those Narnia beavers they have. The worst myth, really fevers? What is it? They have those beavers and Chronicles of Narnia serving a plate of fish and beavers don't eat fish. And a lot of people say like, oh, yeah, beavers totally fish. And it's like, no, they don't they're vegan. Like they eat plants and sometimes their own poop, but they do not eat fish and we're worried about
Profile icon of Michelle Fullner
Michelle Fullner
42:57
that. Not an ecologist Absolutely. debunked any concept of any new ecology mark. Oh, man. Come on, Clive. Do better. To be fair to Mr. Lewis, he was probably of the mind that no one should trust the behaviors of a family of talking beavers in an invented magical land to represent any kind of accurate ecological picture in that same chapter where they eat the fish. Here are a few other things the beavers do use a sewing machine, discuss the weather have a fire, sleep in bunk beds, drink tea and beer boil potatoes plot against an evil queen warm plates in the oven and keep stores of food like hams and strings of onions hanging on their wall. As someone who loves books and stories including this one so much I made a career as an English teacher out of it. I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of choices writers make and how those choices interact with our readers expectations, like the reader can be expected to know that beavers don't talk so drink tea or plot against evil monarchs. So when they come across those things in a book, none of it is carried out into the world beyond that book as a standard expectation about beavers but the reader expects certain aspects of the beavers identities to be grounded in reality, like their diet. I think what might have really set this misconception in stone for a lot of people is that Lewis actually shows Mr. Beaver and Peter Pevensie going ice fishing. It says they went across the ice of the deep pool to where he had a little hole. Mr. Beaver had a little hole in the ice, which he kept open every day with his hatchet. It took a pail with them. Mr. Beaver sat down quietly at the edge of the hole. He didn't seem to mind it being so chilly, looked hard into it then suddenly shot in his paw. And before you could say Jack Robinson had whisked out a beautiful trout. Then he did it all over again until they had a fine little catch of fish, which they then come inside and cook for dinner. Now. Also, to be fair to old Jack Lewis. He couldn't very well create a cozy atmosphere in which the beavers and the Pevensie children all sat around eating various tree parts and maybe like that side of their own feces for supper, guys. I love the Narnia books so much that my senior quote back in the high school year Book was from Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Just don't look to them for ecological knowledge. Okay, let's transition back from imaginary beavers to real ones real quick. Now one of the most fascinating things that about your work, I am just like riveted by this is their impact on drought. And on wildfires. Now that's two different questions. So I guess let's talk about drought first, because that's something we're experiencing right now.
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Emily Fairfax
45:21
Yeah. So whenever we have a drought, you're basically cutting off the precipitation. And all the plants need water. A lot of plants rely on having some precipitation to water them just like you might water your lawn or your garden. But in the beaver pond, it's storing all this water during whatever wet period you have. Sometimes that snow melt, sometimes that's just a rainy or wintertime. And it gets stored in this pond. And it's the water is so slow, it can kind of seep out into the soil and into the floodplain. And then when it's dry, there is still water underground. And that's where the plants roots are. And so they can keep accessing water, even if it hasn't rained for months. And I've been at this site after I think the longest period was like six months, not a drop of rain. And it was exactly like we thought today like really water, the water is cold, it's flowing, every plant is green. It's so lush, it's like bonkers. And then you walk out into the floodplain and it's dry and dusty and like a slight breeze picks up enough dust for you to cough. But down in the wetland, it's totally different because they've just stored that much water and it moves so slow. So every time you have a wet time, it gets banked, and then it just slowly seeps back out just like a drip irrigation line for all of those plants, keeping them in this really green lush state that honestly they should be in, especially in the River Corridor. It's a place that's supposed to have water.
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Michelle Fullner
46:32
And so that probably has an impact on biodiversity of the whole system, right? Because then those plants are surviving and making seeds, which can then get spread out to a farther range. Do you see that impact?
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Emily Fairfax
46:43
Yeah, so you can definitely see that within the beavers ecosystem. A lot of these plants are more mature, I mean, just the biodiversity of the plants we're looking at like to my right, I'm looking at the floodplain. I see some oaks, some scrubby brush, and a lot of dead things. And then looking to my left into the beaver wetland, we've got Willow, we've got every redone weed that I don't know how to name at all. There's tons of Cottonwood, there's oaks as well. There's grasses, there's everything. Because there's so many resources for it, like water is the most limited resource here. And there's plenty and so everything can just grow. They're not competing for that really scarce resource there.
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Michelle Fullner
47:15
One of the things I've learned while just doing this podcast, and doing my California naturalist and all that kind of stuff is that like so many insects are reliant on like a particular plant, right? And then so you get that insect that goes with that plant, because that plant is present. And then you get more birds eating those insects. And then you get what actually what kind of animals do you catch? Like, how many species would you say you've caught on the camps?
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Emily Fairfax
47:37
Yeah. So what you're describing is the Beavers are keystone species. And so they've created this environment that has created environments for everybody else. And then then that creates even more environments for more different animals.
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Michelle Fullner
47:46
If you're interested in keystone species and want to learn more about them, go check out episodes two and three of this podcast. They're both about salmon, which are a keystone species. So there's a lot more information about keystone species there.
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Emily Fairfax
47:58
And just with the cameras we've had here, and my student researchers in AI, we've catalogued 74 Different species visiting Oh, and that's just things with spines, vertebrate, yeah, birds, mammals, things like that. We haven't looked at fish really, although those spines, we haven't looked at the insects. We haven't looked at anything else. It's just the big mammals and birds that we can catch on camera. 74 species just here.
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Michelle Fullner
48:18
74 vertebrate animals. I don't think that I could sit down and name 74 vertebrate animals off the top of my head.
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Emily Fairfax
48:24
I'm really lucky. I didn't really think about it. My student who's working on this, Natalie, she is a total like bird whiz. And she can look at all this footage. And she's like, I know that bird. I know that bird. I know that bird. When I went through this footage. I was looking. I was like a duck. It's a bird.
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Michelle Fullner
48:39
There's another bird, bird. Bird. I don't know exactly where I'm at with birds. And I'm always so embarrassed because like, I feel a lot of the people I go out with they're like, oh, yeah, that's the Western this or that? And I'm like, Oh, great. Like, I know nothing about the bird. Cool. Tell me about it. Yeah, 100% I think this is because as a kid, I could never get into birds because they were not either a cuddly or be terrifying, which I loved both of those things. I really just wanted to interact with every animal. And I also wanted to be a tiger trainer and I loved really big, scary animals. So it's been really hard for me to get into birds. But now that I'm closing in on 40, I think maybe I have the patience and I can learn a little bit about birds. Okay. And then the other one that I think is really amazing. And so much of our anxiety as Californians revolves around wildfire. They have this impact on drought, where they're kind of buffering the environment from drought, and then a lot of your work is around wildfire. So what's that all about?
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Emily Fairfax
49:36
So if you imagine that you have to go start a campfire, you're going to go out and find the driest crunchiest material you can, right you don't go searching for wet leaves and what sticks. That doesn't make any sense is the same concept in Beaver wetlands, like they're just so wet, the plants are wet, the leaves are wet, the sticks are wet, it's hard to burn, whereas the rest of the environment is very dry. And so when a fire happens, no matter why it started, it's going to just take the time path of least resistance, it's gonna burn whatever's easiest to burn. And it can't like sit and waste time really trying to burn these super wet areas. And doing a fire comes through a place that a lot of beaver dams, it's gonna burn all this dry stuff that's out on the floodplain where it's not wetted, it's gonna burn the hillslopes it's gonna burn the forests, but then it hits the beaver wetland, and it's like coming across this gigantic sponge of water, and that just doesn't burn and the fire will move on or it'll go around or it'll blow over but it's not going to be able to burn those really wet leaves because that's just like continuously extinguishing that little fire front, right where it's It's touching. And the end result is that you have these totally charred landscapes, but these pockets of green in the middle of them like a little oasis that didn't burn and it stayed totally green, or maybe it just had a little singeing on the edges, and it's like it's been preserved and put into a bubble while the fire came through. And we've seen this happen all over the western United States where these beaver wetlands are just too wet to burn and animals go there. There's photos of black bears coming to hang out in these places. We've seen otters come hang out in the beaver ponds mean the beavers hang out in the beaver ponds is just this patch of habitat that stays there. And then if you're an animal that can't out, run out, fly out, swim, whatever out crawl a fire, that's your best bet to survive the wildfire is to get into one of these wetlands. And historically, when we had a lot more wetlands in the West, it probably wasn't such a stretch to find one. But today there's so few that these beaver wetlands, they're one of sort of a handful of reliable patches of fire refugia that these animals can find.
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Michelle Fullner
51:21
So I tell my four year old a bedtime story every night and I always make it up on the spot or recycle an older one that she wants to hear again. But after I learned about Emily's research and how animals can find refuge in Beaver wetlands during wildfires, I made up a story about these wolves that seek refuge in a beaver wetland during this massive wildfire. And now that I know that wolves are really good predators of beavers, maybe I would have chosen a different animal but in the story, the Beavers are really nice and give homemade cookies and snack bars to the wolves. Were not ready for all the hard lessons of nature yet. Does the beaver pond ever stop the path of a fire? Or is it more like it'll just go around it? And it'll leave that one spot is an
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Emily Fairfax
51:59
excellent question. We don't know for sure. I've seen it happen once in one of the fires that I was studying. A fire front came up to this extraordinarily large beaver complex and did not appear to be able to get past it on that front. But I will be the first to say that my research has been biased towards looking at large fires. Like I'm intentionally picking the biggest gnarliest fires I can find. Because I want to see like what's the end limit of this? Like how big of a fire can a beaver maintain that greenness through I have not been studying little grass fires or brush fires. And I would definitely expect those to be less capable of getting through wet environments. And so in that case, like it's totally plausible in my mind that you have a brush fire come through, it hits a big strip of beaver wetland, and it's just not gonna be able to move on. If there's not super high winds blowing it over then it's just going to stop. But when I'm looking at these big really dramatic fires, these are fires that are creating their own weather. These are fires with fire tornadoes and fire storms and they're going to blow over they're definitely not going to be totally so
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Michelle Fullner
52:52
even that level of fire doesn't burn the beaver ponds not. That's amazing.
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Emily Fairfax
52:57
I've seen them a couple of times I've seen the beaver ponds burn. And usually that's when it's an old pond. It's been abandoned. It's partially drained, or it's a really isolated pond. So ultimately, like it's a race, like, do you have enough water to keep the fire at bay until the fire moves on? And if you're one tiny beaver pond, maybe the answer is no. But when I look at Beaver complexes with multiple ponds together and lots of dams, those by and large are staying totally preserved or just getting a little bit of singeing like very low intensity burning, which honestly, it's kind of like prescribed burning, so it's the right thing, but they're not getting that severe destructive burning there.
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Michelle Fullner
53:28
That's truly amazing. Yeah. Despite all of these amazing ecosystem services provided by beavers, when I was researching the asides for this episode, I kept noticing things getting auto filled, or questions that were popping up that were not things that I asked like, how do I remove beavers from my property? Or is it legal to kill a beaver, things like that. So I got curious about the conflicts between people and beavers. And I found out that a lot of people have concerns about living alongside beavers. So farmers that need to irrigate fields or irrigate different areas of their land will sometimes find their irrigation channels dammed up by beavers, which is, of course problematic for moving water around. Now, a lot of times the solution has been just to kill the beaver or remove the dam. But that's not actually a great long term solution, because beavers will just keep coming back. I found a great Bay Nature article that goes into a little bit more detail about this. It's called beavers can help California's environment, but state policy doesn't help them. And there's so much good information in this article. But one of the key takeaways for me is that one of the best ways to approach living with beavers, even when they're a little problematic, so close to humans is just relocating them to somewhere that they can provide all of these amazing ecosystem services without interfering with humans. Another solution in farmlands where they're likely to just come back is to do things like wrapping vulnerable trees with wire to keep beavers from chewing them. I don't have all the answers for this. This article is definitely a good place to start. But in our current climate, in our changing climate, it becomes more and more are essential to have refuge from wildfires for various animals and for plant species that need to be able to survive these kinds of events, not to mention the other myriad ecosystem services beavers provide that benefit humans and wildlife alike. So it's really important for us to learn how to work with the beavers instead of against them. Now, I wanted to find out a little bit more about the way that Emily does her research. You work at CSU Channel Islands, I do. And you're up here a couple hours away. How
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Emily Fairfax
55:29
far was this drive for you? About two hours, two
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Michelle Fullner
55:31
hours? How far do you travel a lot to go look at different lever funds.
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Emily Fairfax
55:35
I do I travel a lot for this. Luckily, some of that travel is virtual. And so I do a lot of remote sensing, which means that I use satellite data to look at Beaver ponds all over the western United States. And I can go from Oregon and Nevada to Colorado to California just by clicking my mouse around and seeing the sights through these different sort of airborne and spaceborne platforms, which is great. And it lets the research move forward quickly, without requiring me to constantly be on site for everything. But even that kind of data does require some ground truthing. So then I'll take trips, I'll go out to the beaver ponds, I'll make sure that what I think I'm looking at from above is what I'm actually looking at on the ground. Take notes about how green it is do some vegetation monitoring with drones or other field techniques. But yeah, it's a lot of trouble. If I had to personally visit every Beaver Dam I studied, I would never get a study done. I'm very happy that I can use satellites for this.
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Michelle Fullner
56:24
Right and to scout it out for you. Yeah, because you had to go in like search for them.
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Emily Fairfax
56:27
It's extremely time consuming. Yeah. And it's hard. Like this is a brushy area. And I know this one's I know the trails to get in. But if you're just scouting and looking, walking through this not
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Michelle Fullner
56:36
easy. I definitely got lost walking out of there after our interview. So I can't imagine bushwhacking trying to find beaver dams without the help of satellite. Yeah, I mean, I think that I having an untrained eye even though once you get to it, it is so obvious. But with an untrained eye, you can easily walk past this and have no clue.
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Emily Fairfax
56:54
Oh, yeah, just a little strip of green, nothing fancy until you get into it. You have to go through that green wall. And then you are in the wetland. It's obvious and like wow, beavers obviously.
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Michelle Fullner
57:04
And then the world is in color and not black and white. Yeah.
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Emily Fairfax
57:07
It's very transformative. It's almost surreal. Sometimes walking across this floodplain that's so dry, and then going through that wall of willows and then being like, it's completely different. It's like you're teleported to the wilderness. Even though one on one The highway is like a mile from here.
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Michelle Fullner
57:23
You would have no idea. No clue. It seems very far away. This seems super remote. And we haven't seen anyone that is not out here with us. Yeah, absolutely. We've been here and driving to here too. We like went through a neighborhood and like, yeah, yeah, just not there's
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Emily Fairfax
57:35
water treatment plant nearby. It's like we're technically we're, I think we're semi urban, or like it's an urban wildland interface, because we're right on the edge of the town of a tasket. Arrow, but you wouldn't know it being down here.
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Michelle Fullner
57:45
No clue. What do you wish people knew about beavers.
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Emily Fairfax
57:49
I wish people knew that they do so much work for us, if we just let them be beavers, and don't mess with them. And don't micromanage them. And it can be really hard for people to let go of control, especially over things that affect us. So like droughts and wildfires and floods, and to just sort of trust a giant rodent to take care of it. For us. It feels silly, like even sitting around like trust the road. And but honestly, we should like they have been building these structures way longer than people have been building dams. They have been engineering the environment way longer than people have been engineering, the environment. And they have all of these different ecosystem services that just their natural behavior provides. I mean, there's the drought, the fire, the flood, there's also water quality things, there's biodiversity, there's carbon sinking, and we're just scratching the surface of understanding sort of the depth of that, and what was lost when the trapping happened, and when their population was nearly destroyed. And if we could just trust them a little bit more and let them come back. I think we could really benefit from that. And we don't have to be managed, and we don't have to be in there like Bill here, Beaver. It's just going to do it. We just have to step back and enjoy it. Right. And
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Michelle Fullner
58:55
my next question, which I think you've kind of answered already, is, how do people help beavers. And it sounds like just get out
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Emily Fairfax
59:00
of the way. Galloway is a big one. Sometimes when the streams are in really poor shape, we can help them get started. The rich are great engineers, but it's easier for them to engineer a stream that's not totally degraded. So there's this whole field of river restoration called low tech process based restoration, which basically means we as people go in and try to use only like really locally sourced stuff. So logs from here stones from here to add a little bit of complexity back into the river, and try to nudge it towards being a little healthier. So that if and when a beaver arrives, it's a better starting place for that beaver. And there's lots of places where we don't have beaver still, but the streams are in rough shape. So what we can do is start getting those streams a little bit healthier. So when they come it's not such a struggle
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Michelle Fullner
59:40
as part of that planting native plants because like if they don't have the trees that they rely on, they're not going to have their food. Willow planting
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Emily Fairfax
59:46
is a big part of it, especially in places that are really over grazed and the Willows gone. Luckily, Willow clones so you can take willow cuttings and just stick them in the dirt right and then they grow new willows from that and so it's really easy to sort of regrow the beavers food and it's fast growing and it's
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Michelle Fullner
1:00:00
adaptable. And that's it grew up with beavers. So it had to be
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Emily Fairfax
1:00:04
a choice. All right.
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Michelle Fullner
1:00:05
My last question for you is, what about working with beavers coming out and seeing the sights either still just blows your mind or takes your breath away.
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Emily Fairfax
1:00:14
I worked as an engineer myself for a year after college. And my undergraduate background is in physics and chemistry. So I'm very much like construction and visit sea based thinking, and I see a beaver dam. And every single time I see one, I'm just like, Man, I couldn't build that I couldn't, is so impressive. And like, this is a big rodent. And it can do that. And it's just like it, it humbles you for a minute, you're just like, Wow, here I am. And I'm like, I'm going to solve rivers, I'm going to restore them all. I'm going to fix this for all the people. And it's amazing. And I can do that. And then I come down to a beaver pond. And I see the beavers already done it in a way that I can't mimic. And it's really cool to see that because it's like, wow, you know, maybe I don't have to put all of this on my own shoulders. Maybe people don't have to put all of this on our own shoulders. Maybe if we just sort of embraced these natural ecosystems a little bit more that sort of burden of climate change and of restoring the landscape to a healthier state. It's not it doesn't have to be on our shoulders. Beavers can help. Right? And
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Michelle Fullner
1:01:14
it's, it's one of those things where it's so hard to let go of control, like you mentioned earlier, but it's also where a relief, if you realize you truly can,
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Emily Fairfax
1:01:21
yeah, I mean, I want to come here and go swimming and hang out. And I never have to worry like, oh, did I go patch the dam that I go to that I don't worry about because I know the Beavers are doing it. They've got me covered.
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Michelle Fullner
1:01:30
That's fantastic. Well, Emily, thank
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Emily Fairfax
1:01:32
you so much for coming out here with me, of course and showing me this I always love showing off beaver ponds, it's a wonderland
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Michelle Fullner
1:01:37
is great. I find thinking about climate change and drought and wildfire to be incredibly overwhelming and dread inducing. But it's comforting to think that we can support other animals that can help with these issues just by providing spaces for them to thrive and rethinking the way we interact with them. Okay, I have a lot of people to thank for making this episode possible. First of all, of course, is Emily, Dr. Fairfax, for making the time in her incredibly busy schedule to come all the way out to the beaver pond and show me around. But also I so appreciate our friends Erica and Mike for letting me stay in their house. They were actually out of town while I was in town for the interview. And they still let me stay and we're just incredibly accommodating. Finally, I was out of town for interviews two weekends in a row in May and my husband often works weekends. So it was an absolute three ring circus trying to find childcare. But my mom and my sister in law, Bethany stepped up in a big way and my husband took on a lot of solo parenting in addition to his crazy hours at work, and I so appreciate them all pulling together like that to make sure I can pursue this thing. So thank you all something interesting from my week is that on that road trip I mentioned earlier, I was of course scouting out all the plants and using the Sikh app constantly to identify plants and I got to try two new berries that I'd never eaten before. One was the salaam Berry, which seems to be ubiquitous in Oregon and far Northern California. It looks sort of like a blueberry and the other one was a salmon berry which looks like a reddish Golden Raspberry but isn't as sweet. I think my husband was a little worried about me eating these unfamiliar berries in the forest, but he's also used to me by now and knows that this kind of thing is just gonna happen. Also just want to mention that I did like quadruple verify what each of these things were before eating them. And you should also be really careful when you eat any kind of wild food. Make sure you are positive, you know what it is? Okay, thanks so much for joining me and for sticking around to the very end of the episode. I'll see you next time on Golden State naturalist bye.
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Michelle Fullner
1:03:58
The song is called Ida no buy grapes. And you can find the link to that as well as the Creative Commons license in the show notes. Also, did you notice all the amazing birdsong in that beaver wetland during this episode? I don't know what any of those birds were, but I'm gonna leave you with a little clip of them singing when I get some of those sounds