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Otters, clowns of the Alouette

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Frost is appearing on the dead grasses and bulrushes along the edges of the Alouette rivers and a thin sheen of ice hugs the shore line.

There’s a grayness in the sky that presses down on the land and makes the water look like liquid lead.

When it is quiet and the walkers with their dogs have left the dikes, a ripple appears in the water and the otters surface to see what’s going on.

These playful creatures are members of the weasel family and their aim in life is to have as much fun as possible.

There are more than a hundred species of otters in the world and our river otters are spread all across the United States and Canada.

They mate for life and live in other animals’ burrows, making sure there is an entrance both on dry land and under water for quick escapes when danger comes.

Even hunting for food is a game, as they twist and turn under the water chasing fish, crayfish and frogs.

The otter’s whiskers are sensitive to water turbulence, and one of the most fascinating things to see is a fury creature swimming in circles to draw up the bottom feeding fish from the river bed.

Otters communicate with a high pitched whistle and chirping sound; when happy, they purr like a cat; when danger is near, they make a barking sound

They are also cleaver thieves and raid the fish hatchery tanks on a regular basis.

Being transient animals, there is no way of knowing how many family groups are in the river system. But that there are otters around means the water is clean enough to sustain the food they require.

They are like the miner’s canary: when they disappear, there is a problem in the river.

The best time to see otters is early in the morning or late afternoon, when it is very quiet. The slightest hint of a noise and they dive under the water.

Otters, with their thick waterproof fur, don’t seem to mind the cold.

They are equally happy on land, where they can be seen hunting for frogs or mice. When times are hard, a male otter can range up to 100 miles looking for food.

Otters seem to hold a special place in our hearts, perhaps because of the children’s book Wind in the Willows, or because they make us laugh.

Whatever the reason, they are an important part of our eco-system, helping keep a balance in the rivers.

Without these clowns, the world would be a sadder place.

• Liz Hancock is a member of the Alouette River Management Society. For more visit www.Alouetteriver.org.

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