Column: The muskrat

Published 10:53 pm Thursday, January 26, 2006

By Staff
It seems everyone has a differing opinion of the muskrat. Trappers embrace the muskrat with dollar signs in their eye. Land owners despise them for their destructive tunnels. Some people find them cute. I suspect by and large, though, most folks find them somewhat repulsive, subconsciously associating them with rats because of their hairless, rat-like tail.
I've had a long association with muskrats and they even played a role in the wife and I hooking up. Throughout my high school years I earned money by running a trap line for muskrats. I was starting my first year at Southwestern Michigan College and was engaged to a local gal. I was amidst the horrors of selecting my class schedule and all the normal phys. ed. classes, a required course, were filled up. To make a long story short, I ended up in a girl's golf class for P.E. Once you get past the macho mind set that's not all bad. The instructor paired me with this hot, red haired chick and soon came thoughts of asking her out. Of course, being engaged in a small, everyone knows everyone town pretty much precluded a traditional date. My chance came when I found out the chick was a farm gal that didn't know the meaning of squeamish. “I'm gonna run my trapline this afternoon, wanna come along? I asked. “Sure,” she replied. She even showed up with her own hip boots and offered to carry the pack basket. Who wouldn't be smitten with that? My girl plans immediately changed.
Anyway, back to muskrats. We all know they are a creature of the wetlands and resemble a mini beaver, sans the broad, paddle shaped tail. A muskrat's tail is narrow and slightly flattened. Some of their behavior is also quite beaver-like. They build lodges similar to beavers, though appropriately downsized. Muskrats also sometimes slap their tail on the water as a warning signal like beavers. This is where their similarity ends, though. Muskrats do not chew down trees, eat bark or build dams. Their diet is mostly aquatic plants with cattails, arrowheads and duckweeds high on the menu. However, they aren't above adding some protein in the form of crayfish, clams, snails, insects, frogs and even the occasional small, slow moving fish.
Muskrats aren't picky where they live as long as there's water and plenty of aquatic plants. Shallow ponds and marshes are the most common habitat. Here they construct lodges made of aquatic plants and brush rather than the logs that beavers prefer. These are usually built on a foundation of brush or a stump, though if the water is shallow it may be built directly on the bottom. The lodge has an underwater entrance but the living quarters are above the water line. They build similar, smaller feeding structures for shelter from predators and inclement weather while dining. Muskrats also inhabit deeper ponds, lakes and slow moving streams. Here they most often dig tunnels in the bank with their sharp clawed front feet rather than build lodges. These tunnels have underwater entrances but the living chambers are high and dry. They also have an air vent to the surface usually hidden in brush or thick vegetation. It's these tunnels that cause conflict with us humans. They weaken earthen dams and dikes and, when the tunnels cave in, leave annoying pock mark holes around the shoreline.
Muskrats are active throughout the year but they are susceptible to cold so are less active in the winter. They are highly territorial and aggressive to each other though they sometimes call a truce and share a lodge during the winter. Their territory typically extends about 200 yards out from their lodge or tunnel. Young muskrats or those that have depleted their food supply may migrate several miles overland looking for a new territory.
Muskrat fur has long been one of the more popular furs and not that long ago many kids cut their outdoor teeth on muskrat trapping. Though trapping is a far cry from what it used to be, muskrats still lead all the North American fur bearers both in numbers caught and total fur value. Carpe diem.