Imagine walking along a river on a beautiful spring day when out of the corner of your eye you catch a glimpse of brown, furry head and back just barely above water. You see a pointed noise, brown eyes and cute little ears. There’s a long, scaly tail swishing behind as it moves swiftly along.
Is it a little beaver? A weird otter? A massive rat? You just saw one cool river critter — a muskrat!
Where did they get their name?
The rat part of their name comes from their tail. Mostly hairless, long and scaly, it looks like a rat’s tail. But that tail is awesome. It helps them move around in the water, acting a like a rudder. Think of it like a fin on the back of a boat; it helps them keep course. Muskrats splash their tails on the surface of the water to warn others whenever danger — say a hungry eagle or otter — is near.
Males make a musky smell from their scent glands. The musk is said to smell sweet. Think of it like a beautiful perfume to attract a mate. They also use musk to “talk” with their family and warn intruders to stay away from their space.
These rodents look a lot like another water-loving animal, the beaver. Muskrats even have long, orange teeth for chewing and semi-webbed back feet for swimming. They are smaller than beavers, weighing in at between 2 pounds and 4 pounds. For comparison, most beavers weigh between 40 pounds and 70 pounds. Still not sure if you are seeing a beaver or a muskrat? Check out the tail. Muskrats have round, skinny tails, while beavers’ tails look like broad, flat paddles.
A muskrat’s soft, dense coat of fur ranges in color from grayish to brownish and is basically waterproof. Their downy underfur is covered and protected by longer guard hairs. Not only do these hairs protect them from the cold and water, they are also so thick they help muskrats float!
Muskrats are very social animals, and they live in a large territorial area with their families. They are considered nocturnal, but you can also see them during the day. They are most active in late afternoon and right after dusk.
Muskrats are intensely aquatic animals. They love water and can live almost anywhere there is enough of it throughout North America. Give them a river, a pond or a wetland and they are happy. Their favorite spot is a marsh.
Words to know
Burrow: A hole or tunnel dug by a small animal.
Glimpse: A momentary or partial view.
Intensely: With extreme force or strength, or to an extreme degree.
Intruder: A person or animal that unwelcomingly enters into a building or territory of another.
Rudder: A flat piece near the stern, or back, of a boat for steering.
Ventilation: The supply of fresh air into a building or other space.
They build two types of homes: bank burrows and domed lodges. Muskrats dig underground burrows into riverbanks with their sharp front claws. The entrances are underwater to stop intruders. They are hidden from animals that don’t spend much time swimming, like coyotes. These tunnels might extend more than 25 feet! They lead to a dry nesting chamber with tiny ventilation holes hidden at the surface by shrubs or tall grasses.
In marshes and shallow ponds, muskrats build lodges that look like small versions of beaver homes. They are domes made from aquatic plants, brush and mud. Like the bank burrows, a lodge entrance is found underwater. The water-filled tunnel leads to a dry room above the water’s surface.
A muskrat family might build several lodges — some for sleeping and living and others for eating. In fact, they might even build several small feeding huts in their territory. These are smaller and less complex than a living lodge, but they protect muskrats from harsh weather and predators while dining.
Muskrats are even known to take up residence in beaver lodges. They might move into an old abandoned one or they will settle for being roommates with beavers in the wintertime. The larger rodents offer some protection to muskrats. Muskrats pay rent by bringing back extra food to share.
Muskrats are perfectly adapted to their watery homes. Their lips close behind their front teeth so they can chew underwater.
They might be awkward on land, but they are fantastic swimmers. Muskrats can hold their breath underwater for up to 20 minutes. Using their tails and webbed feet, they can swim forward and backward up to 3 miles per hour. That’s how fast the average person walks!
Muskrats are not picky eaters. Most prefer veggies like cattails, water lilies, roots and pondweed. Snails, mussels, salamanders, crustaceans, fish and even young birds are also on the menu.
Next time you are out on a walk near any type of waterway, keep your eyes peeled. You might see a muskrat!
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.