Winter is a good time to watch for Arkansas furbearers

The playful, whiskered river otter is a common sight along waterways in many parts of Arkansas.
The playful, whiskered river otter is a common sight along waterways in many parts of Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

River Otter

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

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

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

Raccoon

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

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

Bobcat

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

Bobcat kittens, usually two, are born in a den under a log, in a cave or under an upturned tree from March through early May. The bobcat’s most important foods are rabbits, squirrels and small rodents. Although capable of killing deer, bobcats rarely do so.

Beaver

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

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

Muskrat

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

In some areas, muskrats become serious pests, causing considerable damage by burrowing into levees and banks on fish ponds. Fortunately, they are easily controlled by trapping. They feed primarily on aquatic plants but also eat crayfish, mussels and carrion.

Nutria

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

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

Mink

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

One to 11 young are born sometime between February and late May in a nest under tree roots, logs or stumps, or in an old muskrat or nutria burrow.

Coyote

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

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

Red and Gray Foxes

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

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

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