Summit Outside: Muskrats and lore

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily

There is an ever-present muskrat swimming around the docks at the far end of the road at Frisco Bay Marina.

This furry aquatic animal is probably pretty safe from most predators, but if he were swimming around a Michigan Lake he might be in danger of being trapped and eaten.

There is a custom of eating muskrat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent, This apparently goes back to the early 1800s. There was a group allowed to eat muskrat on Fridays when there was a fish-only, no-meat rule for Catholics, with the reasoning that the mammal lives in the water.

It is said that the trick to making the muskrat edible is in the marinade, a secret recipe based on a French liqueur. Apparently, muskrat dinners in Michigan seems to appeal to men more than women. Reportedly drinking a lot of beer helps. According to one muskrat connoisseur, muskrat tastes the same as duck. His claims both animals live in the water and have the same diet. (May be partly true.) “The only difference is one walks and one flies.”

The Blackfoot Indian claimed that the muskrat created the world: “In the beginning, all the world was water. One day the Old Man, also called Napi, was curious to find out what might be beneath the water. So he sent animals to dive beneath the surface. First duck then otter, then badger dived in vain. The Old Man then sent muskrat diving to the depths. After a long time muskrat rode to the surface holding between his paws, a little ball of mud, and then blew upon it. The mud began to swell, growing larger, and larger, until it became the whole earth. Then the Old Man made the people.”

The muskrat’s name comes from scent glands, found near its tail. They give off a strong “musky” odor which the muskrat uses to mark its territory.

Muskrats are referred to as “rats” in a general sense because they are medium-sized rodents with an adaptable lifestyle and an omnivorous diet. They are not, “true rats,” but are the largest species of rodents, in the family that includes mostly voles and lemmings. At maturity they are about 26 inches in length including the 9 inch tail, and weigh about 1 1/2 to 4 pounds.

These creatures are covered with short, thick fur; medium to dark brown or black in color with the undersides a slightly lighter color; dense under-fur and a nearly waterproof outer coat which also protects them from the cold, like the conditions of Dillon Reservoir most of the time.

Their hind feet are webbed and fringed with stiff hairs and the ankles are rotated out so the hind feet work as paddles. The tail is covered with scales, rather than hair, is flattened vertically, rather than horizontally like the beaver and serves as a rudder when swimming.

Muskrats spend much of their time in the water and can swim under water for 12-17 minutes. Like seals and whales, they are less sensitive to the buildup of carbon dioxide than most other mammals. They can close off their ears to keep the water out.

Their webbed feet make them rather awkward on land and they are vulnerable to predators like coyotes, foxes and large owls. When they walk, their tails drag on the ground, which makes their tracks easy to recognize.

Muskrats are found often in territories dammed by beavers. They also build lodges with underwater openings, but they are made mostly of cattails, other aquatic plants and mud. The lodges may be 3 feet high and 6 feet across with entrances that are 6-8 inches wide.

In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their lodges closed by plugging them with vegetation which they replace every day. Muskrats also build feeding platforms in wetlands. Inside the lodge is a nest chamber where they are safe from predators other than mink and an occasional snapping turtle.

Muskrats are most active at night or near dawn and dusk. At dawn is when we most commonly see the muskrat at the Frisco marina. Plant materials make up about 95 percent of their diets. They feed on cattails and other aquatic vegetation. They also eat small animals such as freshwater mussels, frogs, crayfish, fish and small turtles. While Muskrats may appear to steal food that beavers have stored, more seemingly cooperative partnerships with beavers exist.

Muskrats, like most rodents, are prolific breeders. Females can have two to three litters a year of six to eight young each. The babies are born small and hairless and weigh only about 0.8 oz. In colder northern environments it takes about a year for the young to mature. Muskrats normally live in family groups consisting of a male and female pair and their young.

Muskrat populations appear to go through a regular pattern of rise and dramatic decline spread over a six to 10 year period. Some other rodents, including famously the muskrat’s close relatives, the lemmings, go through the same type of population changes.

Muskrats continue to thrive in most of their native habitat and in areas where they have been introduced. While much wetland habitat has been eliminated due to human activity, new muskrat habitat has been created by the construction of canals or irrigation channels and the muskrat remains common and widespread. They are able to live alongside streams which contain the sulfurous water that drains away from coal mines. Fish and frogs perish in such streams, yet muskrats may thrive and occupy the wetlands.

As far as semi-aquatic, furry animals, we basically have here in Colorado the beaver, muskrat, otter and mink. All of these animals have been used by humans as food and adornment.

Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers


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