The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the muskrat as “a large amphibious rodent indigenous to North America.” That description cracks me up. I have a mental picture of a group of large rodents, wearing steel helmets and carrying rifles, crouched inside a landing craft ready to storm a well-defended beach. I have a weird sense of humor.
Okay, so they don’t wear helmets or carry rifles, but they are indeed amphibious, or semiaquatic, spending much of their life in water. Muskrats, Ondatra zibethicus, are the only species in the genus Ondatra. They are related to voles, lemmings, and most mice native to the Americas. Muskrats were originally found throughout Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico, but they have since been introduced throughout Europe, parts of South America, and even Japan. They are such prolific breeders that they are now considered an invasive species in some parts of Europe. I personally classify them among a host of animals that commonly surround us but are rarely seen.
Their name is derived from the musky odor they emit from two scent glands located at the base of the tail. The musk is used during breeding season to mark territory. Just like beavers, they have four large, yellowish incisors in the front of their mouth. Adults weigh approximately 1.5 to 4.5 pounds and are about 2 feet long. They feature a vertically flattened, 8- to 12-inch-long scaly tail, as opposed to the beaver’s horizontally flattened tail. The muskrat tail acts as a rudder and is used for propulsion. Their rear feet are webbed, and it has been reported that they can remain submerged for 10 to 12 minutes. Some references even state they can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes, rivaling the underwater time of a dolphin. Muskrats will eat almost anything, including cattails, water lilies, roots, grasses, leaves, and stems. Their ears are quite short and hidden within thick, dark brown fur. They are short-lived, with an average lifespan of only 1 to 3 years.
Muskrats actually live in families consisting of a male, its mate, and their young. They are extremely territorial, and fights between males will sometimes result in serious injury or even death. They will burrow into the bank of almost any body of water, creating something like a beaver den, including an underwater entrance. Being quite prolific, after a 4-month gestation, females give birth to a litter of six to eight babies — two to three times a year! Practically every other animal feeds on muskrats, including mink, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, bears, snakes, and alligators.
That thick, dark brown fur defines the muskrat. For as long as humans and muskrats have coexisted, their fur has been prized for its natural beauty and warmth. Muskrats have been one of the most commonly trapped animals in the United States. They are considered an important furbearer resource in terms of the number harvested and economic value. Likewise, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources classifies the muskrat as a furbearing animal that may be legally trapped with a commercial trapper’s license from January through February.
In researching this article, I came across a fascinating story in The Monroe News, the newspaper of Monroe County, Michigan. The article told the story of the 1906 Monroe Yacht Club muskrat dinner, apparently an annual affair. According to the report, 1,000 people attended the dinner and consumed 1,800 muskrats, which were prepared by “the direct supervision of Chef Ed Lemerand,” described as the best muskrat cook in the land.
It was a festive evening indeed and even featured a rhyming competition by those in attendance. The Detroit delegation furnished the following, to the air of Tammany:
Muskrat town, muskrat town.
Detroit is all right to see.
But Monroe is the place for me.
Roast ‘em brown, roast ‘em brown,
Gravy, gravy, gravy, gravy
Choke ‘em down.
I have nothing more to say about muskrats.