On New Year’s weekend I pulled my small fish house, a “darkhouse” used for spearing northern pike, onto my favorite Becida area lake with my truck. The small lake is teeming with an abundance of little “pan-pike,” perfect for the frying pan.
Last weekend I moved the little fish house to my usual spot on the lake nearer to a stand of bulrush off of a point of land and a steep drop-off. It proved to be a good move, as pike immediately appeared into view, including, as it turned out a few days later, an unwanted visitor or visitors.
Days ago on another fishing outing, I learned that I wasn’t the only occupant of my fish house. Lifting the door that covers the two-foot by four-foot hole in the ice, the water and the ice was littered with bits of vegetation floating beneath the thin sheet of ice as well as vegetation strewn on top of the ice underneath the house. “I’ll be darned,” I muttered aloud, “muskrats.”
Indeed, sometime during the night an active and feeding muskrat or muskrats utilized my fish house as its makeshift lodge as they kept the hole open and free of ice while they clamored up onto the ice below my house and fed on bulrush and other aquatic vegetation.
Muskrats are a locally abundant species of rodent that are related to beaver, porcupine, squirrels, mice, voles and other rodents. Though they share similar habits as beavers, these semi-aquatic mammals more closely resemble over-grown voles than beavers. 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. In fact, ondatra was adopted as the mammal’s scientific 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.
Muskrats swim upon the surface of the water using their hind feet for propulsion and their 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. Most animals are usually no longer than 20 inches, half of which is its 10-inch long tail. Living a short life, four or five years, 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.
Interesting occupants of marshes, lakes and rivers, muskrats are active all year long, including in the wintertime as 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.
With its soft brown fur and long tail, this widespread Minnesota mammal usually goes about their business quietly feeding, swimming, raising their young, and building their homes without our notice as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.