New York City’s most famous beaver has returned home for the holidays.
After a year-long hiatus, José—the first wild beaver to return to New York in at least two centuries—is back at the zoo and has even cut down his own Christmas tree (see photo), which he’s using to construct a lodge on the Bronx River.
Beavers were once widespread throughout the region, but they were wiped out because of fur trapping.
José, named for Congressman José E. Serrano, his Bronx River champion, was initially spotted at the zoo in early 2007. After building a lodge on zoo grounds, he eventually moved upriver to the New York Botanical Garden in the summer of 2007, where he lived for several months before vanishing to parts unknown. Last week, he was spotted at the Bronx Zoo nibbling on a large tree he had just cut down along the Bronx River.
“José has come home for the holidays and we couldn’t be happier,” says zoo director Jim Breheny. “We are delighted to have him back at the zoo, and we wish him a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year on the Bronx River.”
José’s return is a testament to extensive cleanup efforts spearheaded by Serrano, along with the Wildlife Conservation Society and local groups, including the Bronx River Alliance. Serrano has helped secure $14.5 million in federal grants for the river’s restoration since 2001.
“José the Beaver may have started out in life as an upstater, but he’s turning into a Bronxite like the rest of us—tough as nails,” Serrano says. “Instead of heading to Florida for the winter, he’s coming home to the Bronx River. Like his neighbors, no matter what life throws at him, he keeps on going. Now let’s hope that he finds a mate and starts a family.”
“All the work we’ve done to reclaim the river is paying off,” adds Linda R. Cox, executive director of the Bronx River Alliance and Bronx River administrator for NYC Parks & Recreation. “Everyone who has helped to plant a tree or investigate river conditions or clean up riverside trash should feel proud today. We’ve made José welcome in the Bronx.”
The beaver is best known as one of nature’s great engineers, able to alter its environment by felling large trees with its powerful gnawing teeth and through the construction of dams and lodges, which provide additional habitat for other species and serve to purify running water through the removal of silt.
Historically, the beaver was central to the founding of New Amsterdam, with beaver skins being the colony’s chief commodity and export. During 1626, when the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan from Native Americans, traders shipped 7,246 beaver pelts back to the Netherlands. By 1671 (with the city renamed New York by the English), the trade in beaver skins climbed to 80,000 skins annually. Beaver pelts were even used as currency, with a single skin representing about 16 guilders.
The central role of the beaver in New York City’s history is featured on the city’s official seal. Just one block south of the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan is Beaver Street, another vestige of the rodent’s impact on the city’s founders.
In pre-colonial America, beavers were thought to number more than 60 million. By 1800, they had completely vanished in the United States east of the Mississippi. By 1930, the beaver was near extinction and in need of protection. Today, it has rebounded in much of its traditional range.
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Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society