Native Americans call them “little brothers of the beaver.” They swim, gnaw, build houses, eat the same foods and even resemble beavers. They received the name Muskrat, because like the beaver, they have a pair of musk glands to use when they need to scent message other animals in the area to include those of their own kind. So that’s where the “musk” part came from, and the “rat” part came from that long, skinny and seemingly hairless when wet, tail, which is a dead give-away that you’re not looking at a beaver. We don’t get many muskrats, orphans or adults, admitted for care at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, but when we do, despite the muskrat’s persecution for centuries, OWLS is a safe haven for them because we treat all wildlife equally and with respect. They get the same royal treatment just like any other indigenous species admitted to our clinic. Besides, these chunky little mammals are way too cute, wear strikingly beautiful fur and have squeaky and intriguing conversations with each other! A while back, we raised two orphans who treated us to quite the aquatic mammal experience. Aware of the timid ways of the elusive and shy beaver cousins, we ensured their makeshift habitat was loaded with leaved limbs, hiding places, and water sources to enjoy. They didn’t do anything to get themselves in trouble, but we still had to place them behind steel bars or as all efficient rodents would do, they’d chew out whenever they wanted. With all our infant wildlife, we take extreme measures to ensure they don’t become friendly towards people. If we allow them to bond with us, their chances of survival in the wild would be zero. Muskrats are easier to keep wild than most because they tend to be skittish, frightful of people and non-aggressive, although will bite if they perceive danger. In defense of the “in the wild” muskrat though, they seldom invade our residential spaces because they are always close to water, and usually marshy, human uninhabitable wetlands at that. So, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans, fascinating little creatures and can entertain anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them. In North Carolina, muskrats are common in most river systems but rare in our southeastern coastal regions, which is the main reason OWLS’s rehabilitators don’t get much hands-on with muskrats. Where ever a musky chooses to call home, it will dig into a bank or build a free standing house by piling aquatic vegetation into a mound, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with several chambers and tunnels leading into the water; quite impressive and masterful engineering. These lodges, also called push-ups or mounds, are not as grand as beaver lodges. The muskrat does not haul in logs and slap on mud. The fashioned mounds of grasses, reeds, and small sticks are only a few feet high. 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. Muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes in the water. Unlike the beaver though, 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 average litter size is 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 encourages her eldest members to move out and build a home of their own. An adult 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 the 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 the opportunity presents itself.
I once read a story about 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 a number of deep, functional water pans. The question of why she came to the door was never answered but a couple theories were; the weight of the snow collapsed the lodge or a predator, such as a wolf or mink, tried to dig in, but she was smart, lightning fast and escaped. Although the plan at the home was to release her back to the wild in the spring, last I heard, she is very content and lives with the residents still. Muskrats benefit many wetland species by creating open water areas for waterfowl and are an excellent indicator of environmental quality. Gotta love ‘em! I know I do!
Author of “Save Them All” (which is now available as an ebook on Amazon)