Muskrats

What’s That Brown Animal Swimming in the Ditch? By Jeanne Henderson If you cannot see its ears, and the tail is sculling from side to side at the water surface, the animal is a muskrat, not a beaver. A beaver’s ears and head are bigger and when swimming, the paddle-shaped tail is hard for us to see. Muskrats live in ponds, marshes and along slow-moving rivers. They travel in roadside ditches or drains between habitats. Muskrats prefer living near standing water that’s 4-6 feet deep throughout the year because it does not freeze all the way to the bottom in winter and is shallow enough for rooted plants to survive. These rodents can hold their breath for five minutes on average while swimming underwater, but have been documented staying down for 12 to 17 minutes! They resurface through cracks or chew a hole in the ice. In ponds or marshes, muskrats construct a dome-shaped home of cattails, sedges and bulrushes. The mound may rise to 4 feet high and spread 6 feet in diameter, with walls about 1 foot thick. The internal temperature stays warmer than the outside air and offers protection from predators and weather. After piling up vegetation, the muskrat dives to cut and dig its way up into the center, creating a living chamber above the waterline. Removed material is added to the outside, and two or more underwater entrances are dug. Muskrats living along rivers will build a bank den, often with entrances under tree roots or rocks, making it hard for enemies to enter. Muskrats also dig canals through muddy bottoms to make movement easier, and unwary people may fall into them when walking along marsh edges. A mated pair builds the home and lives there until the time young are ready to be born, when the female drives out the male. Five muskrat homes per acre indicate good living conditions. As omnivores, muskrats eat many aquatic emergent and submerged plants: cattails, water lilies, pickerelweed, smartweed, willow, arrowhead, watermilfoil and duckweed. They also consume clams, mussels, crawfish, small fish, frogs and salamanders. When the water surface freezes, muskrats create “push-ups” of loose marsh plants pushed through a breathing hole in the ice. As those plants freeze, the muskrat can hide inside while breathing and eating in relative safety. Musk Facts
  • By cutting and consuming plants, muskrats create openings in cattail stands that benefit ducks and herons. Canada geese often create their nests on top of muskrat mounds.
  • Breeding starts in early March when ice breaks up and about one-third of adult males disperse to other habitats. Females usually have three litters per year with six to eight young per litter. Born blind, helpless and naked, the youngsters stay inside the home until they are furred and weaned, venturing out on their own at 30 days old.
  • Main predators of muskrats are mink and raccoons. Mink can carry a muskrat bigger than itself. Raccoons capture young muskrats by tearing apart their homes in summer. Since muskrats are active any time of day but mostly through night into morning, they are also vulnerable to hawks, owls, snapping turtles, fox or coyote. A muskrat defends itself by rising up on its rear feet, ready to fight. If cornered by a person, it bites as it climbs up a leg.
  • Populations have been kept in check by trapping for their fur and food since the 1800s. There is no bag limit on trapping muskrats in Michigan zones 2 and 3 from Nov. 10-March 1 (consult DNR for official rules).

What’s That Brown Animal Swimming in the Ditch?
By Jeanne Henderson

If you cannot see its ears, and the tail is sculling from side to side at the water surface, the animal is a muskrat, not a beaver. A beaver’s ears and head are bigger and when swimming, the paddle-shaped tail is hard for us to see.

Muskrats live in ponds, marshes and along slow-moving rivers. They travel in roadside ditches or drains between habitats. Muskrats prefer living near standing water that’s 4-6 feet deep throughout the year because it does not freeze all the way to the bottom in winter and is shallow enough for rooted plants to survive. These rodents can hold their breath for five minutes on average while swimming underwater, but have been documented staying down for 12 to 17 minutes! They resurface through cracks or chew a hole in the ice.

In ponds or marshes, muskrats construct a dome-shaped home of cattails, sedges and bulrushes. The mound may rise to 4 feet high and spread 6 feet in diameter, with walls about 1 foot thick. The internal temperature stays warmer than the outside air and offers protection from predators and weather. After piling up vegetation, the muskrat dives to cut and dig its way up into the center, creating a living chamber above the waterline. Removed material is added to the outside, and two or more underwater entrances are dug. Muskrats living along rivers will build a bank den, often with entrances under tree roots or rocks, making it hard for enemies to enter.

Muskrats also dig canals through muddy bottoms to make movement easier, and unwary people may fall into them when walking along marsh edges. A mated pair builds the home and lives there until the time young are ready to be born, when the female drives out the male. Five muskrat homes per acre indicate good living conditions.

As omnivores, muskrats eat many aquatic emergent and submerged plants: cattails, water lilies, pickerelweed, smartweed, willow, arrowhead, watermilfoil and duckweed. They also consume clams, mussels, crawfish, small fish, frogs and salamanders. When the water surface freezes, muskrats create “push-ups” of loose marsh plants pushed through a breathing hole in the ice. As those plants freeze, the muskrat can hide inside while breathing and eating in relative safety.

Musk Facts

  • By cutting and consuming plants, muskrats create openings in cattail stands that benefit ducks and herons. Canada geese often create their nests on top of muskrat mounds.
  • Breeding starts in early March when ice breaks up and about one-third of adult males disperse to other habitats. Females usually have three litters per year with six to eight young per litter. Born blind, helpless and naked, the youngsters stay inside the home until they are furred and weaned, venturing out on their own at 30 days old.
  • Main predators of muskrats are mink and raccoons. Mink can carry a muskrat bigger than itself. Raccoons capture young muskrats by tearing apart their homes in summer. Since muskrats are active any time of day but mostly through night into morning, they are also vulnerable to hawks, owls, snapping turtles, fox or coyote. A muskrat defends itself by rising up on its rear feet, ready to fight. If cornered by a person, it bites as it climbs up a leg.
  • Populations have been kept in check by trapping for their fur and food since the 1800s. There is no bag limit on trapping muskrats in Michigan zones 2 and 3 from Nov. 10-March 1 (consult DNR for official rules).

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