I watched a muskrat the other day. The animal's luxuriant-looking fur, glistening from water droplets and sunlight, was a rich brown color that contrasted sharply against the backdrop of snow and ice.
As the muskrat fed on fresh aquatic greens that it had evidently gathered into a neat pile on top of the ice at the water's edge, I could see it holding the stem of a plant in a manner similar to how you and I would hold a cob of corn.
I was enticed into the false belief that the muskrat, seemingly content on feeding, was unaware of my presence, even though I was only 15 feet away. Still, as I watched the animal feed on its dinner, I tried to approach closer. As soon as I moved, the muskrat let go of the sprig of green and quickly slipped into the cold river below the ice and disappeared.
Relatives of squirrels, gophers, mice and voles, muskrats are very common and abundant. Belonging to the large order Rodentia, the muskrat is, of course, a rodent. Other rodents include beavers and porcupines. The muskrat lives its entire life in and near water and is known as a semi-aquatic mammal.
Like all rodents, muskrats have two pairs of incisors -- a pair on the top mandible and a pair on the lower jaw. These important teeth are kept in chisel-like form by their constant gnawing. And it's important that they do gnaw, because if they didn't chew on things, their ever-growing teeth would soon prevent them from doing so. Gnawing keeps their incisors sharp while preventing the teeth from growing too long.
Muskrats resemble over-grown voles. And though their tails are scaled and hairless like a rat's tail, it's unfortunate that their common namesake includes the word "rat."
French trappers had many names for them, including Red River seal, velvet coney, musk beaver and water mink.
Huron Indians referred to the muskrat as "ondatra," while the Algonquins called them musquash. Ondatra was later adopted as the mammal's Latin genus name. Its species name, "zibethicus," is the Latin word for "musky odor." Thus, "muskrat musky odor."
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, with a flavor that has been likened to rabbit and duck.
A muskrat's diet consists of primarily plants and plant parts. It considered a clean animal that eats only clean and fresh food.
Regarding the meat of muskrats, I was surprised to learn, at least according to the Internet's free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that "In the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, there is a longstanding dispensation allowing Catholics to consume muskrat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent."
Of course any Catholic will tell you that eating meat, except for fish, is prohibited on specific days during the season of Lent. But since the muskrat lives mostly in the water, it is thought by some people to be the fishes' equal (which, I think, is a hard pill to -- ahem -- swallow).
To protect themselves from the elements and predators, muskrats usually build lodge-like shelters or mounds (similar to beaver lodges) 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 eagles and hawks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, wolves, otters 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 for a beaver.
Muskrats swim on the surface of the water, using their hind feet for propulsion and their tails for steering. They can dive and stay underwater for 10 minutes or longer without surfacing for air. And, similar to beavers, muskrats have folds of skin inside their mouths that close behind their teeth, effectively keeping water out while they cut or dig for submerged foods.
Found across North America, muskrats are not very large at all. Most animals are usually no longer than 20 inches, half of which is a 10-inch long tail.
Living a short life, four or five years at the most, muskrats are extremely prolific. Populations often become too dense, causing fighting amongst themselves, migrations to other areas, outbreaks of disease and parasites, and increased predation by their enemies.
Muskrats are interesting inhabitants of marshes, lakes and rivers. In the winter, they keep their holes through the ice partially 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" or "push-up." Such temporary housing provides a warm and protected place to feed unseen.
The little cousin of the beaver with the soft brown fur and long tail is a widespread, year-round Minnesota resident. Active throughout all four seasons, muskrats quietly go about their business, feeding, swimming and raising their young and building their homes.
Next time you're afield within their wetland world, look for "le rat musque" as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com.