Nature Notes: Muskrat

Muskrats are semi-aquatic mammals and live in stream, river and pond banks with underwater tunnels and dry chambers.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) is a common mammal found in marshes, stream banks and around shallow-water areas throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They are semi-aquatic and live in stream, river and pond banks with underwater tunnels and dry chambers. They sometimes build lodges similar to the beaver. As would be suspected, they are known for their strong musky odor. Muskrat have brown fur, which is waterproof, and a long, thin, scale-covered tail used as a rudder for swimming. They weigh up to about 4 pounds.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources classifies and manages them as fur-bearing animals with regulated hunting and trapping seasons. The hind feet are webbed to aid in movement through their watery habitat. Muskrats feed on aquatic plants such as cattails, water lilies, water plants, grasses and even algae. They will also eat crayfish, fish, frogs, snails and other aquatic life.

Muskrat are prolific animals, with the female birthing up to five groups of pups in a year. Generally they produce five to 10 young, which are born hairless and blind after about a month gestation. Within a couple of weeks after birth, they have a full coat of fur and open eyes. In about six weeks, they are independent and fully capable of surviving on their own. Since they are water habitat dependent, they are found mostly around water areas; muskrat are generally active around the clock. In winter months, they are less active, and mostly remain hidden from sight.

An interesting sidelight about muskrat: they are considered a food source for humans. Similar to the rodent guinea pig consumed in Peru, they are readily eaten here in Maryland and elsewhere. There are muskrat food festivals in Maryland. In Dorchester County, muskrat have long been considered as food and also have provided an income to watermen and others through sale of their fur. Cambridge has an outdoor show that showcases regional food and sporting activities. This includes muskrat dishes available in many places. There are many different descriptions of what muskrat tastes like, as one might expect. Muskrat are plentiful and not endangered, but are certainly an important member of the semi-aquatic mammal family.

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