Plants & Animals
Have you ever observed a live muskrat close up? Most Missourians would answer “no” to this question. The muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus, is nocturnal, for the most part, and downright unsociable around humans when encountered during the day. Once a human is spotted, the muskrat will dive and stay under water as long as 20 minutes to avoid contact. Recently, I was photographing ducks at a lake on August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area from a well-concealed hunting blind. To my surprise, a muskrat swam to within 20 feet of my location and spent about an hour feeding on aquatic vegetation. I was taken by the appearance of this foot-long, furry rodent; kind of cute at first glance, but a little weird on closer inspection. Muskrats are a golden brown with tiny black eyes, long whiskers and hand-like paws with long, ivory-colored nails. They also have a long, vertically-flattened, hairless tail that aids them in swimming.
Muskrats occur throughout Missouri and their preferred habitat includes wetlands, lakes, ponds, rivers and slow-moving streams. A muskrat’s body is suited for swimming with the help of huge hind feet and for burrowing with the aforementioned claws. Long claws help the muskrat to burrow into stream banks and pond dams. They start below the waterline and burrow upward to a point above water where the den is constructed. Muskrats don’t always live in underground burrows, but instead construct above ground dens made of cattails and other aquatic vegetation. Muskrat dens are sometimes confused with beaver dens, which are larger and made of sticks and mud. Muskrat dens are usually visible from the shoreline and sometimes you can see muskrats sitting on top of their den, feeding or loafing.
Muskrats raise multiple litters, starting in the spring and continuing into fall. As young develop, they start to venture away from the den to feed on aquatic vegetation, along with their parents. Roots and stems of cattails, water lilies, smartweed and water willow are all on the menu. Muskrats typically spend their life as vegetarians but they occasionally eat other items such as mussels and crayfish, especially if vegetation is scarce. They also will scavenge dead fish but will not expend energy pursuing live ones so muskrats are never a predatory threat to pond or lake fisheries.
Landowners often complain of damage to pond dams from muskrat burrows but muskrats typically don’t dig far enough to seriously weaken a properly built dam. For information about muskrat control and ways to prevent muskrats from becoming a problem on your property, check out Missouri Muskrats: A Guide to Damage Prevention and Control. You can download a PDF of this publication at www.MissouriConservation.org/250. This publication covers muskrat life history, proper pond and dam construction, damage prevention techniques and trapping methods. Whether you are building a new pond or trying to maintain an old pond, there are proven methods to help you live in harmony with these resourceful rodents.
story and photo by Danny Brown