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muskrat

A rodent animal, of the genus Ondatra, which includes but one species, O. zibethicus, allied to the beaver, but about the size of a cat, having a strong, musky smell. It is a native of North America. Its popular name is the musquash, the Indian name. — Webster, 1882

Muskrat houses are very large, which of course indicates a cold winter. Corn husks are thin, which means a mild winter. It is a dead-lock. – De Smet Leader, 1884

     
The muskrat is peculiar to North America; Native Americans called it the musquash or peesquaw tupeyew, which means “the animal that sits upon the ground in a round form.” The habit of rounding itself when sitting often causes hunters to mistake the muskrat for a mound of earth.

Another peculiarity of the muskrat, which it shares with no other quadruped, is its ability to contract itself, due to extremely elastic ribs and a large muscle lying directly under the skin. By this means it is able to squeeze into holes which a considerably smaller animal could not enter.

The muskrat resembles the rat, but is larger – frequently as large as a cat, but with limbs so short that its body drags upon the ground in walking. Its head is broad and its eyes are small. To keep out the water, thick fur covers its ears. The tail, which is two-thirds the length of the body, is laterally compressed and scaly, and like the feet, is perfectly black and nearly hairless. The hind feet are webbed, and all four feet have claws. The muskrat has sixteen teeth; the lower teeth are an inch long and the upper teeth are much shorter. The fur of the muskrat is glossy, resembling that of the beaver, but interspersed with long, stiff hairs. Its coloring is from black to brown to gray. [Photo at left courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]

The musky odor from which the animal derives its name serves as a guide for the muskrats to find each other. The muskrat is aquatic and swims with great rapidity, sometimes as much as fifteen or twenty yards under water. The animals lay up no food for the winter, but hunt at night. It subsists chiefly on roots of aquatic plants, digging them from the soil and washing them before eating.
The flesh of the muskrat is dark in color and resembles that of wild duck in flavor. The animals were highly hunted in Dakota Territory, with skins bringing from six to thirty cents each. They were made into caps, muffs, capes, and other articles of apparel. Although wild in nature, the muskrat may be easily tamed. Their gnawing propensities render it an undesirable pet, however!

The Muskrat House. As a builder, the muskrat is almost as ingenious as the beaver, building in the autumn before the marshes are frozen over; its favorite spots to build are the banks of sluggish streams, marshes or sloughs. In streams, the muskrat burrows many subterranean passages, all of which slope upward to a main channel. This channel leads to a center chamber. In this chamber beds of grass are made, large enough to contain several animals, and the young are born here.
In marshy spots, the muskrat builds, above ground,, a conical dwelling from two to three feet in diameter and from two to four feet high, composed of sticks, grass and twigs, plastered together with mud. These huts look like miniature haycocks from a distance, and are approached by subterranean passages. Like the beaver, the muskrat is social in its habits. Several families occupy one house.

The Weather-wise Muskrat.
— From Sharp Eyes and Other Papers by John Burroughs (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1881), 84-87.

     I am more than half persuaded that the muskrat is a wise little animal, and that on the subject of the weather, especially, he possesses some secret that I should be glad to know. In the fall of 1878 I noticed that he built unusually high and massive nests. I noticed them in several different localities. In a shallow, sluggish pond by the roadside, which I used to pass daily in my walk, two nests were in process of construction throughout the month of November. The builders worked only at night, and I could see each day that the work had visibly advanced. When there was a slight skim of ice over the pond, this was broken up about the nests, with trails through it in different directions where the material had been brought. The houses ere placed a little to one side of the main channel, and were constructed entirely of a species of coarse wild grass that grew all about. So far as I could see, from first to last they were solid masses of grass, as if the interior cavity or next was to be excavated afterward, as doubtless it was. As they emerged from the pond they gradually assumed the shape of a miniature mountain, very bold and steep on the south side, and running down a long gentle grade to the surface of the water on the north. One could see that the little architect hauled all his material up this easy slope, and thrust it out boldly around the other side. Every mouthful was distinctly defined. After they were two feet or more above the water, I expected each day to see that the finishing stroke had been given and the work brought to a close. But higher yet, said the builder. December drew near, the cold became threatening, and I was apprehensive that winter would suddenly shut down upon those unfinished nests. But the wise rats knew better than I did; they had received private advices from headquarters that I knew not of. Finally, about the 6th of December, the nests assumed completion; the northern incline was absorbed or carried up, and each structure became a strong massive cone, three or four feet high, the largest nest of the kind I had ever seen. Does it mean a severe winter? I inquired. An old farmer said it meant “high water,” and he was right once, at least, for in a few days afterward we had the heaviest rainfall known in this section for half a century. The creeks rose to an almost unprecedented height. The sluggish pond became a seething, turbulent watercourse; gradually the angry element crept up the sides of these lake dwellings, till, when the rain ceased, about four o’clock they showed above the flood no larger than a man’s hat. During the night the channel shifted till the main current swept over them, and next day not a vestige of the nests was to be seen; they had gone down-stream, as had many other dwellings of a less temporary character. The rats had built wisely, and would have been perfectly secure against any ordinary high water, but who can foresee a flood? The oldest traditions of their race did not run back to the time of such a visitation.

     Nearly a week afterward another dwelling was begun, well away from the treacherous channel, but the architects did not work at it with much heart; the material was very scarce, the ice hindered, and before the basement-story was fairly finished, winter had the pond under his lock and key.

     In other localities I noticed that where the nests were placed on the banks of streams, they were made secure against the floods by being built amid a small clump of bushes. When the fall of 1879 came, the muskrats were very tardy about beginning their house, laying the corner-stone – or the corner-sod – about December 1st, and continuing the work slowly and indifferently. On the 15th of the month the next was not yet finished. This, I said, indicates a mild winter; and, sure enough, the season was one of the mildest known for many years. The rats had little use for their house.

     Again, in the fall of 1880, while the weather-wise were wagging their heads, some forecasting a milk, some a severe winter, I watched with interest for a sign from my muskrats. About November 1st, a month earlier than the previous year, they began their nest, and worked at it with a will. They appeared to have just got tidings of what was coming. If I had taken the hint so palpably given, my celery would not have been frozen in the ground, and my apples caught in unprotected places. When the cold wave struck us, about November 20th, my four-legged “I-told-you-so’s” had nearly completed their dwelling; it lacked only the ridge-board, so to speak; it needed a little “topping out,” to give it a finished look. But this it never got. The winter had come to stay, and it waxed more and more severe, till the unprecedented cold of the last days of December must have astonished even the wise muskrats in their snug retreat. I approached their nest at this time, a white mound upon the white, deeply frozen surface of the pond, and wondered if there was any life in that apparent sepulcher. I thrust my walking-stick sharply into it, when there was a rustle and a splash into the water, as the occupant made his escape. What a damp basement that house has, I thought, and what a pity to rout a peaceful neighbor out of his bed in this weather, and into such a state of things as this! But water does not wet the muskrat; his fur is charmed, and not a drop penetrates it. Where the ground is favorable, the muskrats do not build these mound-like nests, but burrow into the bank a long distance, and establish their winter-quarters there.

     Shall we not say, then, in view of the above facts, that this little creature is weather-wise? The hitting of the mark twice might be mere good luck; but three bull’s-eyes in succession is not a mere coincidence; it is a proof of skill. The muskrat is not found in the Old World, which is a little singular, as other rats to abound there, and as those slow-going English streams especially, with their grassy banks, are so well suited to him. The water-rat of Europe is smaller, but of similar nature and habits. The muskrat does not hibernate like some rodents, but is pretty active all winter. In December I noticed in my walk where they had made excursions of a few yards to an orchard for frozen apples. One day, along a little stream, I saw a mink track amid those of the muskrat; following it up, I presently came to blood and other marks of strife upon the snow beside a stone wall. Looking in between the stones, I found the carcass of the luckless rat, with its head and neck eaten away. The mink had made a meal of him.

     


     

John Burroughs (1837-1921) was an American naturalist and essayist who was important in the evolution of the United States conservation movement. His biographer, Edward Renehan, wrote that Burroughs was “a literary naturalist with a duty to record his own unique perceptions of the natural world.” While working as a clerk in the United States Department of the Treasury, Burroughs bought a farm in West Park, New York. It was here that he wrote down his observations of the “weather-wise muskrat.”

     

muskrat (BW 1-2; LHP 18; BPC 31, 35; SSL 16; TLW 1, 4, 6-7; PG)
     muskrat cap (LHP 18) – A covering for the head, made from muskrat. For some beautiful fur hats to buy (even muskrat!), see glacierwear.com. It is not known what style muskrat cap Charles Ingalls wore. Closeup of muskrat fur shown at right.
     muskrat house (TLW 1) – The muskrat house photo above was taken by the little slough on Ingalls Homestead. Photo on the navigation button that brought you to this page show a muskrat house at the edge of Silver Lake. Both in De Smet, South Dakota.