Vail Daily column: Muskrat manor
When asked, I would often tell my students that a muskrat was kind of like a mix between a rat and a beaver. I knew they were semiaquatic like a beaver, had a skinny, scaly tail like a rat, and lived in marshes, but I didn’t know much more beyond that.
There is occasion to know more about these odd creatures though, because we have a resident muskrat in the pond at Walking Mountains Science Center. If you are diligent, you will notice him early in the mornings or late in the afternoons zigzagging across the surface of the pond.
I often rush out, leaving my car still running and parked on the road, to watch its v-shaped trail rippling through the water as I leave in the evenings.
These creatures are especially active at night, but a few guests and groups of students have been lucky enough to see this large rodent for themselves while visiting during the day.
Muskrats have partially webbed hind feet, similar to the beaver, which aids in their foraging. Neither the beaver nor the muskrat hibernates; both are active throughout the winter, spending much of it in the safety of their den or under the ice. Unlike the beaver though, muskrats don’t store food for the winter lull. They need to eat fresh vegetation each day, so it is normal to see their bubble trails under the ice in the winter. They are built for that polar plunge, with a thick protective coat that has two layers; a soft undercoat of downy fur that keeps them warm and a longer, bristly guard hair layer that helps keep them dry.
They can also hold their breath for 15 minutes, and chew underwater, which aids in their constant foraging.
Although it shares some characteristics with the beaver, the muskrat is the only species in its genus. They are generally a foot in length, with a long, scaly, vertically flattened tail following behind instead of the big paddle-like tail of the beaver.
You can tell a muskrat lodge from a beaver’s lodge because it will be smaller and is often made out of cattails or aquatic foliage instead of wood. They can also make their homes in abandoned burrows in the banks of ponds and creeks though, as we suspect is the case at Walking Mountains. They don’t only use cattails for building, though, as they primarily eat the young shoots and leaves of these and other aquatic plants. They have also been known to eat fish, snails, crawfish and sometimes even turtles. We’ve only seen one in our spring-fed pond, but unless the winter is unusually cold, they will mate year round. The muskrat gets its name from its particular way of communicating with other muskrats and warning off predators: Its offensive and strong-smelling musk. Predators can include raccoons, mink, owls, eagles, foxes, domestic dogs off leash, and coyotes, all of which we’ve seen on the Walking Mountains campus, too.
We are all guests in this resident’s home, so please tread with care when visiting. You might find the muskrat in the pond along with Canada geese, mallard ducks, the mink along the banks of the Buck Creek, some red-tailed hawks and bald eagles in the sky, or owls and flickers in the trees on your trip to Walking Mountains Science Center, so come visit us and explore your curious nature!
Rose Delles is the youth programs coordinator. Come visit anytime and she’ll join you on the boardwalk for muskrat viewing.