Friday, January 16, 2009
“Look at them shuffling shuffling down
Name. The muskrat is Ondatra zibethicus. It is in the same family of rodents, the Cricetidae, as rats, mice and voles. The genus name, Ondatra, is taken from the Iroquois name for the animal. The common name refers to the very strongly scented yellow “musk” which they secrete and deposit at various places in their range. Humans are able to smell it for several days after it was produced. Another common name is Musquash.
When and where seen. On January 6, Leslie Thomas saw a muskrat on a snow mound by the side of the road on School Street near the Poole swamp. Unfortunately, its rambling days were done. Given its location, it had probably been hit by a car. I would call it a musquash. You are likely to see live ones in swampy areas where there is a lot of vegetation and particularly where there are stands of cattail. It’s the same habitat where you might find eye of newt and toe of frog; I’m not sure about wool of bat, but around the pond where there’s tail of cat, you’ll find musk of rat.
Distinguishing characteristics The muskrat is a chunky animal about a foot long, not counting the tail which is another eight or ten inches. The fur is glossy with the upper parts being dark brown and the sides being lighter. The eyes and ears are small, the hind feet are partly webbed, and the tail is scaly and flattened vertically. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and are sometimes mistaken for beavers. You can usually see part of the muskrat’s tail when it is swimming while a beaver’s tail is completely out of sight. Also, a beaver is much smaller than a muskrat.
Food. In Wild Mammals of Missouri, there is a reference to muskrats being sold as food in some (unspecified) parts of the country under the names of marsh rabbit and marsh hare. This is only done in the fall and winter because the meat absorbs enough muskiness in the breeding season to make it unpalatable. On the website for “everything muskrat” I found the following opinion on this practice: “To err is human. To eat a muskrat is not.” Muskrats themselves are largely vegetarian eating mainly cattails and bulrushes but also a variety of other aquatic plants as well as fruits and vegetables. When vegetation runs short in the winter they eat small water animals. Muskrats use a kind of dining room, at least for their vegetarian meals. They gather roots and rhizomes dug from the pond bottom, stems, leaves, etc. and take it all to a “feeding station” (a small platform of reeds, stems, and leaves) for consumption. In the winter, they build feeding stations on the ice by gnawing a hole in the ice and pushing vegetation through it. These little mounds provide some cover when they come out of their lodge to eat.
Shelter. The muskrat can make either a den or a lodge depending on the terrain. The den is dug into the side of a bank along the waterway. The opening is about six inches wide. Over the years it may be enlarged into a long tunnel (50 yards or more) with many chambers and ventilation holes. In open water, the muskrat may build a lodge of herbaceous plants like sedge and cattail stalks and then plaster it with finer plant material and mud. It may be built onto in successive seasons and can be as large as eight feet across and six feet high. It may include a stick or two, but is not like the beaver lodge of peeled branches.
Young muskrats build their first shelter in late summer or fall. These starter homes are small and are abandoned in the winter when these otherwise solitary animals join others in a larger lodge which may house a dozen muskrats. These animals, despite their fur coats, are susceptible to exposure and in the winter they need to stay under water or in their lodge sharing body warmth. The rodent equivalent of the “three dog night” is a “twelve muskrat night” – like last night.
Sources. Swampwalker’s Journal, a Wetlands Year by David M. Carroll; Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior by Donald and Lillian Stokes; Wild Mammals of Missouri by Charles Walsh Schwartz.∆
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito