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Muskrat

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These first warm, green days of spring are among the sweetest of the year. No one stays indoors willingly. Now, imagine how you’d feel about such a day if you had spent the winter in a dark hut of mud and cattails with a bunch of damp muskrats. If I were a muskrat, I’d certainly be ready to get away from my housemates — maybe even go out on the town.

On one such fine spring evening years ago, I had just seen the early show at the Latchis Theater and was starting to walk up Main Street when I noticed a group of excited young people staring into the dark entryway next door. I investigated. In the corner, a muskrat huddled, overcome by the stimuli of the big city.

As tires sped by in ominous proximity, I knew this muskrat’s chance for a safe return to the Whetstone brook were only fair. Fortunately, I was wearing my brown tweed coat, a garment that can double as a small animal net and tranquilizer (there is something soothing about being wrapped in warm dark wool). The young people stepped back as I removed my coat and explained my intentions. As the coat descended, however, the muskrat revived and took evasive action.

Hugging the edge of the building, she scuttled down the street and turned in at the theater where a long queue had formed for the next show. I was able to track her progress by the shrieks from the crowd. She finally hid under a bench in the lobby. When the crowd dispersed and only a small group of curious people remained, I persuaded the muskrat to leave her refuge and cornered her by the popcorn machine. The wool coat had the desired effect and she relaxed for transfer to a box.

Among those assembled was someone who lived near a wetland complex with many cattails and she offered to transport the muskrat to this destination. I hope she found the territory of her dreams and wasn’t too disappointed to have missed the late show.

My conversations with the people who gathered to see the muskrat made it clear how poorly understood these animals are. They are not rats and they won’t eat your chickens. They are semi-aquatic rodents in the same family as mice and voles, but in habit and appearance they more closely resemble beavers. Like beavers, muskrats are aquatic, have dense lustrous fur and lips that can close behind their incisors so they can chop vegetation underwater. They produce a pleasant-smelling musk that is used to convey information to other muskrats.

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Like beavers, some muskrats build dome-shaped houses. They make theirs from vegetation and packed mud. Like beavers, they also excavate tunnels and dens in the banks of waterbodies. Whichever home style they prefer, inside will be at least one grass-lined sleeping chamber. The female muskrats raise their families in these nests, and usually produce two or three litters each year. By early June you might see young muskrats — cute fuzzy brown tennis balls — feeding near the lodge.

Muskrat families seldom stray far from home. Their territory might be as small as a 50-foot radius around their lodge. Mother muskrats will defend this territory vigorously. During a year with a high muskrat population, female muskrats will be quite visible and audible as they protect their family feeding ground.

Muskrats remain active throughout the winter, swimming beneath the ice, harvesting aquatic plants and feeding in their “push-ups” — holes in the ice beneath mounds of frozen mud and plant debris. All territorial animosity is forgotten when warmth becomes the priority. Ten to fifteen muskrats have been found sharing a winter lodge. Compared with the exposure many of our resident birds and mammals endure, the companionable winter quarters of a muskrat seem downright cozy. Still, the arrival of spring must be welcome indeed.

Look for muskrats wherever you find a good stand of cattails. An evening or dawn visit will increase your chances of seeing one. Watch for a football-sized rodent browsing on vegetation or swimming along with its laterally flattened tail carving the water into sinuous ripples.

These sweetest days speed by each year, and with them the ephemeral highlights of the season. While you’re watching for muskrats, don’t miss the dusk courtship flight of woodcocks over many larger fields. The woodland spring wildflower bloom is ever-shifting and always lovely. The peeper choruses are swelling and gray tree frogs and toads will soon add their songs. Be sure to enjoy them all. I know you’ll be outside.

Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View from Heifer Hill, a column on the nature of our region, appears each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec.org.