The Muskrat -- Little Brother of the Beaver
Nature Bulletin No. 537 September 27, 1958
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
THE MUSKRAT -- LITTLE BROTHER OF THE BEAVER
In the Algonquian Indian languages he was called Musquash. The
Hurons called him Ondatra and that hag now been adopted as his
scientific name. But the best Indian name of all meant "little brother of
the beaver". He gnaws like a beaver, swims like a beaver, builds houses
like a beaver, and looks like a little beaver. He call him Muskrat
because, also like the beaver, he has a pair of musk glands used to leave
messages for others of his kind.
This is the most important fur bearer to professional trappers and the
American fur industry. More than any other wild animal, the muskrat
converts millions of acres of cattail marshes and weedy shores into a
crop of fur and flesh. To the farm boy with a few traps it means money
in the pocket and experience in the skills of outdoor life. Our
womenfolk prize rich warm coats of Hudson seal, the trade name for
muskrat fur. The dark red meat has a wild game flavor but, because the
word "rat" is unpleasantly suggestive, muskrats appear on menus under
such names as Marsh Rabbit and Maryland Terrapin.
Sometimes these animals become a pest, raiding corn fields and other
farm crops near the water's edge, but they do the most damage to
earthen dams, dikes, levees and canal barks which are occasionally
destroyed through leaks started by their burrows. In our Cook County
forest preserves, however, the muskrat plays a star role in establishing
and maintaining natural landscapes and a natural balance among the
wildlife of almost a hundred bodies of water which have been created or
restored during the past thirty years. Neither they nor any other wild
animal may be hunted or trapped in any of the preserves.
In cattail marshes and other shallow weedy waters, muskrats pile up
great heaps of aquatic plants to build a house or lodge that has, inside, a
warm living room reached by an underwater entrance. From this home
they range out to feed on the succulent roots and stems of such plants,
even under thick ice in winter. However, in streams, farm ditches, and
in many ponds and lakes -- especially during summer -- muskrats live in
burrows dug deep in the banks. Those burrows start beneath the surface
and slant upward to an enlarged chamber above the water level.
The muskrat is a thickset short-legged animal with a foot-long body
about the size of a small cat. The adults average two pounds in weight
but, rarely, reach four. It has a 10-inch black scaly tail which is
flattened vertically -- unlike the broad paddle-like tail of a beaver. This
tail is used as a rudder, or to scull slowly, or to smack the water as a
danger signal. The fur is dark brown on its back, with very thick
waterproof underfur and long reddish-brown guard hairs that glisten.
The "rat" has small beady eyes and ears which are nearly hidden in the
dense fur. The hind feet are large, webbed between the toes, and used
like the flippers worn by skin divers. While swimming, the small
forepaws are folded underneath the chin. Like all rodents, it has a pair
of chisel-teeth or incisors above and below, separated from the grinding
teeth or molars by a gap, and its lips can be closed behind the chisel-
teeth to keep water out of the mouth while gnawing beneath the surface.
A muskrat is clumsy and glow on land, seldom venturing away from
water in daytime, but it is a courageous scrapper when attacked or
cornered. Next to trappers, its greatest enemy is the mink which raids
muskrat houses and burrows to eat their young.
In trappers' language they are "mushrats" or just plain "rats".
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Update: June 2012