Mammal in the Marshes

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by Pat Jaquith

A year-round resident of the West Valley ponds, this Muskrat finds building materials, food, and protection in a watery habitat with reeds and cattails. 3.21.20

Muskrats have a dense insulating undercoat and longer dark hairs as an overcoat that must be maintained and groomed. They spread oil from a gland near their tail as a waterproofing fur conditioner, combing it through with the long toes on their front feet. This muskrat gave me a twenty minute demonstration of the process one sunny afternoon in March. Those shiny pelts make them vulnerable to trappers in winter.

Muskrat territory: when water is low, one can see their canals, like streets through the neighborhood where they travel under the ice as they forage. This canal leads to the edge of the pond where they go onto land to gather grasses and other forbs. In the photo on the right, rootlets form the canal edges; tracks show very recent use. Muskrats don’t store food in their den, but must go out to forage or visit their push-up piles daily.

Baney Lake in the State Lands area off Farm to Market in early March. It was frozen hard enough for deer to cross, but I didn’t see any muskrat tracks on the snow. All their activity is carried on below the ice. The reeds had been cut with their sharp incisors and pulled underwater. They push them up through a hole they gnaw in the ice so they can retrieve them from the canal.

There was little open water on March 20, but this muskrat brought up a big mouthful of green pond vegetation and ate it hungrily. After a winter’s diet of dry reeds and cattails, supplemented by roots that hadn’t frozen and perhaps a few crustaceans, it acted like it needed those vitamins and minerals!

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