I often see muskrats taking advantage of the thin ice this time of year, using it as a platform on which to nest and eat.

Muskrats stick mainly to a vegetarian diet, and I watch them bring various aquatic plant parts like tubers up for food for their picnics on the ice.

A muskrat is a furry animal about the size of a small house cat, weighing 2 to 3 pounds and always found in or near water. The long, shiny guard hairs of its coat are a rich brown color. Beneath is a dense mass of thick underfur that is impervious to water. The animal has a long, scaly tail that is flattened on the sides and functions as a rudder. The muskrat also has partly webbed hind feet that help it swim. Combined, these qualities make it possible for a muskrat to live an aquatic life.

Muskrats are present in most parts of the United States and Canada. They are more active at night. While they do not hibernate, they do build houses shaped like miniature beaver lodges up to about 4-by-8 feet in size in preparation for winter. These houses are made of cattail plants, smaller water plants and mud that they build up into mounds. Then, similar to beavers, they eat and dig out a chamber inside and an underwater entrance where they can enter and leave, unobserved from shore.

Muskrats also burrow into banks and have their homes in tunnels above high water, but the entrance is always sufficiently below water level and, thus, difficult to observe.


Jim Gilbert can be heard Sundays on 830-AM. He taught and worked as naturalist for 50 years.