A friend told me a few days ago that she thought I should write about a mammal. “You’ve written several articles about birds recently,” she said, “and you’ve written about the weather. How about a mammal?”
Coincidentally I had recently been reminded of a mammal. My older daughter had seen tracks of a river otter at the edge of the marsh on one side of our pasture just days before and told me about it. My older son has seen a river otter in Chain ‘O Lake State Park south of Albion, Indiana, and told me about it.
I have never seen a river otter. But, I have books about mammals and I have a file of magazine articles about the river otter. Beginning with Mammals of Indiana, published in 1982. I was surprised to find the river otter is not in the index. At that time, apparently, the river otter had not been in Indiana.
The river otter had been an animal of Indiana before 1982. Books published earlier listed its range as northern Canada south into Mexico, everywhere there were rivers or streams, lakes or other wetlands. But, by 1982 it had been exterminated from twenty-six states, including Indiana.
A river otter is up to two feet long but half its length is its tail. It’s a slender animal, including its tail which is as broad as its body and flat as the tail of a beaver but furry, not scaled like a beaver. Its fur is short and dense and was prized by milliners and, of course, by trappers.
The river otter was trapped heavily but that wasn’t the only reason for its extinction over such a large area. It feeds on fish and was believed to be the cause of the decline of desirable game fish. River otters do eat fish but, in fact, primarily fish that are not as desirable to fishermen, or so called rough fish.
Water pollution, particularly chemical pollution was another reason for the decline and the disappearance of river otters from many rivers and streams. Channeling rivers and streams and draining wetlands were other reasons for the decline of river otters and fish.
River otters eat many things beside fish. They eat frogs, crayfish, other amphibians, insects, turtles, even some birds, coots and ducks. They eat some marsh vegetation as well.
River otters make their homes in cavities, frequently muskrat burrows. There are two entrances, one under water, then a channel about four feet long rising toward the end to a chamber two to four feet long. Their nest is made of sticks and twigs. Then there is another channel going several feet and exiting on the surface of the ground. The young, two to five, usually two or three, are born in the spring. The female alone cares for them until their eyes open and they grow teeth but the male stays in the vicinity and often brings food to the entrance of the burrow. When the young leave the burrow the male joins the female in leading them about and caring for them.
Every article I read about river otters mentions playfulness. River otters dive into snow on river banks and steep slopes, slide under the snow and pop out several feet lower. They slide on the surface of snow. They slide on wet mud. Several otters may use the same slide, over and over and over.
How else can you describe such activity other than calling it playful?
Thankfully, in my opinion, prejudice against river otters is not as great as it once was. Many people, including me, welcome them. They have been stocked in several states, including Indiana, and have increased in some of those states, again including Indiana. With river otters in Chain ‘O Lakes State Park, only a mile from my home, and in my pasture marsh, I may not only write about the river otter, I may see one.