The proper name for a Muskrat is Ondatra Zibethicus (Ondatra is the Iroquois name for Muskrat and Zibethicus is Latin for “musky-odoured”). Muskrats, like the beaver, range over most of the North American continent, except for the Arctic tundra. Muskrats look like very small beavers although they are not at all closely related. They have a similar dark, glossy brown coat but are considerably smaller with the head, body and tail measuring a maximum length of 16” to 28” (40 – 70 cm) whereas a beaver could be as large as 43” (109 cm) or more. A Muskrat may weigh a total of 1.5 kg whereas a beaver can weigh 27 kg. – big difference! The tail is not beaver-like but is long and scaly, more like a rat’s tail but flatter. It has webbed feet, small ears and eyes. A musky odour is emitted from the male during breeding season thus warning other males of his presence and advertising to females that he is available. Females also secrete musk.
The Muskrat is mainly nocturnal but I know from experience they can sometimes be spotted during the day. Late one winter, several years ago, we noticed a group of Muskrats gathered around an opening in the ice. We soon discovered they were diving for clams. They seemed oblivious to us as we crept closer for photographs. They dove into the water, then sat on the ice shucking the shells from the clams. They may remain active in the cold winter months, so that even when the ice freezes over, they can take advantage of air trapped under the ice as they swim.
Muskrats also gnaw holes through the ice and then push up mounds of vegetation to keep the open spots from freezing. The ice is easily chipped by their extremely sharp front teeth which, like those of all rodents, keep growing as long as they live.Muskrats can remain submerged for at least 15 minutes when swimming and diving. Whereas beaver lodges are made of sticks and mud, Muskrat lodges are much smaller and are made of grasses, cattails and reeds. The advantage of this type of building material is that they can start eating the inside walls of the lodge when food becomes scarce! They have also been known to inhabit abandoned beaver lodges.
During winter, the inside of the Muskrat house is very warm, often having more than 10 occupants contributing to the toasty atmosphere. In summer, they can sometimes be seen sunning themselves on their houses, or on logs. In addition to constructing houses, Muskrats sometimes excavate dens in the banks of streams or lakes and build feeding platforms and shelters which provide protection from the cold while they eat.
They are fiercely territorial and will fight if threatened. Their small size is deceptive; under the soft fur, their heavily muscled jaw and sharp incisors, make formidable weapons that can be used against predators such as fishers, foxes and mink. Other predators include raccoons, snapping turtles, otters and bobcats. Hawks will attack them during the day, while owls may hunt them at night.The Muskrat’s versatile diet is an asset; although it feeds mainly on aquatic plants, it also eats snails, clams, crayfish, and frogs and may travel hundreds of feet from water to harvest land plants.
Although its lifespan is not very long at an average four years, it reproduces rapidly: several litters a year, each with up to 11 young.
It’s common knowledge that Muskrat fur has been used for coats, capes and other clothing items for many years but you may not know that the fur is also used to decorate Scottish sporrans which are the decorative pouches worn at the front of a bagpiper’s kilt. RCMP winter hats were traditionally made from Muskrat fur but they may now be made with synthetic fur. The musk, like that of the musk deer, has been used in the manufacture of musk perfume although I am not sure if this has now been replaced by chemicals.
These animals are not only entertaining to watch (if you’re lucky enough to see them), but they also help to maintain open areas in marshes which helps to provide habitat for aquatic birds.