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Posts Tagged ‘muskrat’

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Even though it was a frosty cold day last Friday, Seabrooke and I spotted this muskrat foraging at the side of the Tay River in Perth. He was not in the least bit bothered by our presence and continued foraging while we watched. It was the first muskrat we’ve seen out and about since last fall.

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Muskrats are active in the winter, but aren’t usually seen. In the fall, they build a lodge and a system of pushups that allow them to forage under the ice. Muskrats can find food during the winter under a metre of ice and snow, in ice-cold water and almost total darkness. They have specially adapted teeth that protrude ahead of their cheeks, and lips that can close behind them, permitting the muskrat to chew on stems and roots under water with its mouth ‘closed’. For more on muskrats in winter, visit Muskratville.

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Muskrats have a rich, waterproof fur coat. The short underfur is dense and silky, while the longer guard hairs are coarser and glossy. Their feet and tail are mostly hairless. The hand-like front feet are used in building lodges, holding food, and digging burrows and channels. Although the hind feet are used in swimming, they aren’t webbed like those of a beaver. The tail is used like a rudder when the muskrat swims on the surface, and is used for propulsion when the muskrat is underwater.

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I spotted a second muskrat a few days later at the edge of our own little river. He was likewise occupied with foraging for food. Cattails are a muskrat’s preferred food item, but a variety of other plants are eaten as well.

Although a number of predators prey on muskrats, their number one enemy is people. Humans alter and destroy habitat, but also hunt muskrats for their fur. The muskrat contributes more to the income of North American trappers than any other mammal and is very important to the trapping industry. Muskrats are prolific breeders, though, and their numbers have been resilient.

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It had been a while since I had driven down the road that passes beside a large marsh west of here. In the summer, it is dense with cattails. It’s hard to see past the line of cattails lining the road. But now, the weight of the snow and the breaking down of the cattails has revealed…Muskratville!

The snow piled on domed roofs catches the eye and dozens of muskrat abodes have suddenly (it seems) been made visible. Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) build a couple of kinds of structures, lodges and pushups. Pushups are smaller than lodges and serve as resting places where muskrats can eat in safety.

Muskrats forage underwater for roots and underground stems of plants such as pondweed, water milfoil, and burr-reed. Using a line of pushups stretching away from its lodge, a muskrat can gather food farther away form its lodge than it could otherwise reach. As well as providing a feeding station, pushups also provide an insulated shelter out of the icy water that can quickly rob heat from the muskrat’s naked tail and feet.

Pushups are created in autumn, when the pond first freezes over. The muskrat chews a hole through the thin ice, often around an air bubble or a spot where marsh gas is escaping. Then the muskrat pushes up a pile of fine roots, submerged vegetation, and other debris to form a dome. As the pile grows, it forms an enclosed cavity on the ice surface.

The muskrat visits the pushup throughout the winter to keep the ice open. Pushups are generally constructed in straight lines, about 12 yards apart, in line with a favoured feeding ground. I’m not sure which of these structures might be lodges, and which might be pushups, but the many structures certainly suggest an active community.

For more on muskrats, see my November 17th post, Busy as a Beaver. You can also learn more at The Marvelous in Nature at Muskrat in our Meadow, and see another muskrat push-up at Back on the Blades.

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Down by the river, I noticed that a new house has been added to the neighbourhood. A very attractive dome-style home has been prepared by an industrious builder. The builder, though busy as a beaver, is a smaller cousin, a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus).

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As befits the smaller size of its resident, the lodge is quite a bit less ambitious than that of a beaver, but still represents a substantial mound of materials. While beavers use tree branches to build their winter home, muskrats are cattail specialists. The lodge is constructed by first heaping cattails with mud and other plant matter to form a mound. Then, a burrow is built into the lodge from underwater. Muskrats depend on cattails for food as well as housing. Although they will eat crayfish and fish, muskrat diets are primarily made up of cattails and other vegetation.

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You can compare this muskrat house to the beaver lodge shown in this post: At Work Under the Beaver Moon. Although close to the river edge, this lodge is surrounded by water. The water must be deep enough so that it will not freeze to the bottom during the winter, but shallow enough to allow the growth of cattails and other vegetation. Ideally, the water should be between 1 and 2 metres deep. Areas with a good supply of bulrushes, cattails, pondweeds, or sedges are preferred. Ahhh, home, sweet home.

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seabandmusk

When out hiking near a close-by wetland, Birdgirl and I came across this muskrat home. Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are common rodents, closely associated with marshes and cattails. Although they will eat crayfish and fish, muskrat diets are primarily made up of cattails and other vegetation. The lodge is constructed by first heaping cattails with mud and other plant matter to form a mound. Then, a burrow is built into the lodge from underwater. The shelter may be connected to a burrow built into the pond bank. For more about muskrats, visit Hinterland Who’s Who.

Muskrats always remind me of the 70s Captain and Tennille hit, Muskrat Love. Maybe Muskrat Susie and Muskrat Sam were close at hand when we visited the marsh. Missed the 70s? Oh dear. You can listen to the song at the Captain and Tennille website. This quirky, unlikely hit was written by Willis Alan Ramsey in 1971.

Muskrat, muskrat candlelight
Doin’ the town and doin’ it right
In the evenin’
It’s pretty pleasin’

Muskrat Susie, Muskrat Sam
Do the jitterbug out in muskrat land
And they shimmy
And Sammy’s so skinny

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above
It looks like muskrat love

Nibbling on bacon, chewin’ on cheese
Sammy says to Susie “Honey, would you please be my missus?”
And she say yes
With her kisses

And now he’s ticklin’ her fancy
Rubbin’ her toes
Muzzle to muzzle, now anything goes
As they wriggle, and Sue starts to giggle

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above
It looks like muskrat love

La da da da da …

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