A little ‘brother of the beaver’ came into the shelter recently. He was tiny (only eight ounces), needy and fully self-aware that he required help. That’s exactly why a caring human managed to get his hands on a young Muskrat found wandering along the road in Newport. Fearing the infant musky would run into the road, the gentleman pulled his car over and proceeded to walk towards the little one to shoo him away from oncoming traffic, and how the gentleman saw the diminutive ‘eight-ouncer’ in the first place is remarkable. Rather than run away from the good Samaritan, which is normal avoidance behavior in the wild, the infant muskrat literally ran toward him. So, the caring rescuer picked him up, which is what we do with babies who are in distress, human or otherwise. The young Muskrat was alone, confused, scared and hungry. The youngster then took a ride to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter. A muskrat is more accurately a ‘cousin’ to the beaver, but “little brothers of the beaver” is what Native Americans named them many years ago. There is a definite resemblance between the beaver and the muskrat, but the muskrat’s long, skinny and nearly hairless tail rather than the ‘paddle’ tail, gives it away! Like a beaver, dark brown muskrats have a pair of musk glands they use to send messages to other muskrats and different species of animals as well. Of course, the “rat” part of their name refers to that long, skinny tail. Our little musky is doing well at the shelter; enjoying his mega amounts of formula (he’s still of nursing age), toying with some solids like vegetables and mud minnows and relishing his swim time in the deep sink. We are currently checking the wildlife rehabilitation communities in our state for another lone muskrat that could join him. They rehab much better in pairs, and we don’t want this little one imprinting on humans. If we allow him to bond with us, his chances of survival in the wild will be nil. Aquatic muskrats are a North Carolina indigenous species, however, the shelter does not admit them often. Muskrats are easier to keep wild than most wildlife because they tend to be skittish, frightful of people and non-aggressive, although they will bite if they perceive danger (and if you are close enough, which of course is unreasonably close if their teeth can make it into your skin!). When given appropriate respect regarding space and interference, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans, and fascinating and entertaining little creatures to watch for anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them. A fluffy, adult muskrat ranges in size from 10-14 inches in length and weighs two to three pounds. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and can stay under water for up to 15 minutes at a time. Their webbed hind feet, great for swimming, are much larger than the front five-toed feet used for digging and manipulating food. They are nocturnal, although often seen during daylight hours working on their house, and spend most of their life in water. They are primarily plant eaters feeding on roots, shoots and leaves but will enjoy frogs, small fish, crayfish, mussels or clams if available. Muskrats are rodents and capable of chewing through almost anything, so a metal enclosure at the shelter is the only way to go as our little one physically develops and matures. And because they are timid, his enclosure will be stocked with leaved limbs, many hiding places and water pans to laze about in. In defense of the chewing “in the wild” muskrat, they seldom invade our residential spaces because they are always close to water, and usually marshy, human uninhabitable wetlands at that. Muskrats do not build lodges like the beaver, although they will occasionally move in with beavers. Instead of lodges they construct free standing houses by piling aquatic vegetation into a hill only a few feet high, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with several chambers and tunnels leading into the water which is quite impressive and masterful engineering. The grassy muskrat residence is called a ‘push-up’ or ‘mound.’ Sometimes they build the mounds around trunks of dead bushes or trees. In contrast to a beaver’s lodge, there is often no structure below the water, but muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes on water. Also, unlike the beaver, the muskrat does not store food for the winter. They need to eat fresh plants every day and maintain a home range of less than one mile from their push-up. Muskrats can breed any time of the year and more than once with pregnancy lasting 25-30 days. The litter size averages four to six and kits are hairless, blind at birth and weigh less than one ounce each. Over time the youngsters are weaned from mother’s milk and often stay with their parents for a year, but when overcrowding develops, the parents, usually Mom, dramatically and sometimes, harshly, encourages her eldest children to move out and build a home of their own. Every time a muskrat is admitted to our shelter, we still reminisce the story of a young muskrat found scratching at the back door of a nursing home in Ontario, Canada during a horrific snow and ice storm. One of the workers let her in and fashioned a warm kennel with food and positioned deep, functional water pans for her necessary water moments in efforts to keep her safe during the wretched and dangerous weather. The question of why she came to the door was never truly answered but a few theories were; the weight of the snow collapsed the push-up or a predator, such as a wolf or mink, tried to dig in, but she was smart, lightning fast and managed to escape. Although the plan at the nursing home was to release her back into the wild in the spring, she became very content with her newly-found caretakers and remained with the residents of the home. Now that’s a true story of “Muskrat Love!” We love them too, even if we are way south of Canada! We don’t see muskrats as often in this area, but we are aware of their importance to our ecological system and how they benefit many wetland species by creating open water areas for waterfowl. They are excellent environmental partners for they are true indicators of environmental quality.
Best Always and let’s bless America (and the world) by living
harmoniously with nature, wildlife and each other. . . . . . . . .
author of “Save Them All“