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Behold the Muskrat

February 4, 2011 | by Bruce Auchly

Behold the lowly muskrat. A prey species sought by mink for a quick meal. A furbearing species sought by trappers for the animal’s luxurious thick winter pelt.

And that name. Is it really a musky smelling rat?

Yet, on a snowy, subzero winter day when carnivores desperately search for a morsel to stay alive and the rest of us dare not go outside, the lowly muskrat sits comfy inside its lodge.

Muskrats are a native North American furbearer found from Mexico to Alaska usually in still or slightly moving water, like in a pond or marsh. In north central Montana, Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area between Fairfield and Choteau comes to mind. They will also live in major river systems if they can find an area out of the main current with suitable vegetation.

Weighing close to two pounds, the muskrat is built for a life near the water. Its hind feet are partially webbed, and a long, scaly and flat tail serves as a rudder. Finally, that thick coat is buoyant and nearly waterproof from a thick underfur.

As omnivores, they feed primarily on what plants are at hand, especially cattails and bulrushes. But they also won’t pass up a handy frog, fish or snail.

Where ever it chooses to call home, it will dig a into a bank or build a free standing house by piling aquatic vegetation into a mound, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with a tunnel leading into the water. Masterful engineering.

Although muskrats will have a main dwelling lodge during winter, the smaller pushup hut sometimes can be easier to see protruding from a frozen marsh.

Take a drive north of Fairfield on Highway 89. As the road winds past Freezout Lake WMA look into the marsh on the west side of the highway. There will be small lumps of brown, frozen vegetation sticking above the ice: pushup huts.

The mammals build a pushup by forcing submerged aquatic vegetation into ice cracks, forming a dome above the ice.

These small huts radiate from the main lodge and serve as kind of a rest stop that allows them to forage under the ice over a large area. That way they stay safe from predation and don’t spend too much time in the cold water.

Inside the lodge they group together, sharing body heat. It might be 0 outside, but it’s closer to a toasty 50 degrees inside. Throw on a dense fur coat and that is one warm lowly muskrat.

However, even with secure warm lodges muskrats need sunshine, Vitamin D, seeking it at their own peril. If they emerge from a hole in the ice or find a spot where they can climb up an exposed bank, they risk being turned into supper by a foraging mink, red fox or coyote.

As for that name, well, yes, the muskrat is a rodent like the Norway rat, but so are mice, voles and lemmings. And it does produce a musky scent for marking trails and den sites.

All animals face three strategies when dealing with Montana winters: migrate, hibernate or tough it out.

The lowly muskrat has adopted a tough-it-out plan. But on a subzero day when the inside of a muskrat’s lodge is as cozy as your living room that doesn’t seem so tough.