Blane Klemek: The muskrat — the little brother of the beaver
Every winter as a teenage boy I would venture onto frozen Wing River near my parents’ Otter Tail County dairy farm west of Bertha and Hewitt. I would sit for hours inside the confines of a comfortable and warm 4 x 4 fish house, or darkhouse as we always called it, spearing northern pike. A five-tine spear, a chisel, an ice dipper, a few artificial decoys, and an old AM radio were some of the essentials, as were a fuel-oil stove for heating, a sack lunch for eating, and a Thermos full of steaming hot chocolate for drinking.
On one particular warm winter day after I opened the door to the darkhouse, I was surprised to find a pile of weeds on the floor next to the unfrozen spear-hole. It puzzled me as I stood there staring at the vegetation, wondering who did it. Did one of my high school friends pull a prank on me? Not knowing what or who did it, I shrugged my shoulders, cleaned up the mess, and threw it outside on the ice and began fishing.
Some time had passed while swimming the decoy around and around trying my best to lure a pike into view when I was startled by the sudden appearance of a large brown creature swimming up from below the ice into my ice-hole. It came into full view without warning and surfaced before I had a chance to gather my wits.
To my amazement, the critter popped its head out of the water, looked at me, and dived back below the ice in a hasty splash, leaving me sitting there slack-jawed and a little shaken. What I had just experienced — and now understood where the weeds came from in my house — was a visit from a true river rat, the muskrat.
The muskrat is a very common and abundant relative of the beaver, porcupine, squirrels (both tree and ground species), pocket gophers, mice, voles, and others. Belonging to the large order Rodentia, the muskrat is of course a rodent. Like all rodents, muskrats have two pairs of incisors — a pair on the top and a pair on the bottom — that are kept in chisel-like form by their constant gnawing. And it’s important that they do gnaw, because if they didn’t their ever-growing teeth would soon prevent them from doing so.
Muskrats are semi-aquatic mammals that more closely resemble over-grown voles than rats. And perhaps it’s too bad that their common namesake has become the standard. French trappers had many names for them, including Red River seal, velvet coney, and water mink. Huron Indians referred to the muskrat as ondatra, while the Algonquins called them musquash. Ondatra was adopted as the mammal’s “Latin” genus name. Nevertheless, the common name used today was probably derived from “le rat musque”, another French name that was later shortened to muskrat.
Names aside, furriers have long prized the furs of muskrat, but interestingly their food value was much more important. Even today muskrats are hunted and trapped for both food and fur. The dark meat of muskrats is reportedly very good tasting. A muskrat’s diet consists of primarily plants and plant parts, and is considered a clean animal that eats only clean and fresh food.
To protect themselves from the elements and predators, and like the beaver, muskrats usually build lodge-like shelters or mounds consisting of vegetation gathered from their surroundings. Their primary enemy, the mink, is a constant threat, though adult muskrats are adept at defending themselves against mink. Other predators that occasionally kill muskrats for food are raccoons, foxes, coyotes, wolves, and badgers.
Because muskrats often live in the same environments and have similar habits as their larger cousin the beaver, people sometimes mistake the much smaller muskrat as a beaver. Muskrats swim upon the surface of the water, using its hind feet for propulsion and its tail for steering, and can dive and stay underwater for ten or more minutes without surfacing for air. And similar to beavers, muskrats have folds of skin inside the mouth that close behind their teeth, effectively keeping water out while they cut or dig submerged foods.
Found throughout North America, muskrats are not very large at all. Most animals are usually no longer than twenty inches, half of which is its ten-inch long tail. Living a short life, four or five years maximum, muskrats are, nonetheless, extremely prolific. Populations often become too dense, causing fights amongst themselves, migrations to other areas, outbreaks of disease and parasites, and increased predation by enemies.
Muskrats are indeed interesting denizens of marshes, lakes, and rivers. In the wintertime they keep their holes through the ice open or semi-open by plugging the holes or cracks with vegetation. Over time, as the muskrat continues to push vegetation up through the hole, a mound forms on top of the ice creating a makeshift feed-house. Such temporary housing provides a warm and protected place to feed unseen.
The little brother of the beaver with the soft brown fur and long tail is a widespread, year-round resident of northern Minnesota. Active throughout the seasons, the medium-sized rodents go quietly about their business feeding, swimming, raising their young, and building their homes.
Indeed, throughout Minnesota’s bountiful watery wonderland lives “Le rat musque” for all of us to see and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at email@example.com.)