Jeff Green | Feb 07, 2008
Feature Article - February 7, 2008
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - February 7, 2008 Muskrat Love Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes byLorraine Julien I don’t know how much there is to love about a muskrat but I believe a song called Muskrat Love was popular in the 70’s. Strange subject for a romantic song!
Since I didn’t know a lot about muskrats, it was very interesting to research this little fellow. Its proper name is Ondatra Zibethicus (Ondatra is the Iroquois name for Muskrat and Zibethicus is Latin for “musky-odoured”). Apparently a musky odour is emitted from the males during breeding season.
Muskrats look like very small beavers. They have a similar dark, glossy brown coat but are considerably smaller with the head, body and tail measuring a maximum length of 25 inches whereas a beaver could be as large as 43 inches or more. A muskrat may weigh a total of 1.5 kg. whereas a beaver can weigh 27 kg. 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.
The muskrat is mainly nocturnal, but is sometimes seen during the day. They remain active in the cold winter months, taking advantage of air trapped under the ice as they swim. Once the ice starts to freeze, muskrats busy themselves gnawing holes through the ice and then pushing up mounds of vegetation to keep the 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.
They can remain submerged for up to 17 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.
During winter, the inside of the muskrat house is kept 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.
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 fairly common knowledge that muskrat fur has been used for coats, capes and other clothing items for 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.
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.
Although I personally have not yet seen a muskrat in the Land O’ Lakes, I have seen many of their lodges so I know they are around. Their range, like that of the beaver, is over most of the North American continent, except for the Arctic tundra.