The muskrat is a small mammal that flourishes in North Carolina. It is highly adaptable and establishes colonies in riverbanks and marshes. Muskrats are coveted by humans for their fur and by predators, such as mink. The muskrat’s burrowing activities can cause damage to dikes, road beds, and dams and muskrats will harm crops. However, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans and can entertain anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them.
- Dig tunnels in dam of ponds draining pond
- Will eat garden stuff from vegetables to shrubbery
- Will dig at creek banks causing erosion
Piles of shells from freshwater mussels show where muskrats feed frequently, usually on rocks and along the banks of rivers and streams. Other food items are bark, acorns, frogs and small fish. In agricultural areas, feeding muskrats can damage soybeans and corn. Feeding activities are primarily nocturnal, but muskrats are often seen during daylight hours. Muskrats often dig burrows into the banks of streams, lakes, canals or impoundments. Large haystack-shaped houses up to 8 feet across and 5 feet high may be constructed in marshes on top of roots and mud. Dens usually have several chambers and several escape exits. Den sites may house one or several animals. The social unit consists of a breeding pair of adults and juveniles that occupy a breeding territory. When muskrat young (kits) are born, they are blind, hairless and a few inches long. Over time the babies are weaned and mature into large, thick, dark furred rodents. Young muskrats may remain in their parents’ home range until the following spring. There are two basic color variations— brown (70 percent) and black (30 percent). Jet black and blond varieties do exist but both are rare. An excellent swimmer, this large rodent spends much of its life in water. It has a long naked, laterally compressed tail and webbed hind feet, which, for swimming purposes, are much larger than the front feet. Its ears are short and its fur is thick and soft. It looks like a small beaver with a thin tail. Adult muskrats range in size from 10-14 inches and weigh about 2 pounds.
History and Status
The muskrat is a North American native that dwells primarily in Canada and the United States. Native Americans relied on the muskrat, called “musquash,” for food and clothing. European colonists recognized the value of the muskrat; like beavers, muskrats were an important commodity in early trade. Due to the value of its fur, muskrats were introduced in Europe and Asia in the early 1900s. Essentially an amphibious mammal, the muskrat spends its life in ponds and rivers, feeding on aquatic vegetation and on crops such as soybeans and corn. In general, it survives well and is not in danger of extinction. Muskrats are abundant in North Carolina and can be legally trapped during open season. Because population densities are high in many areas, muskrats are more easily trapped than most other furbearers. However, the value of their pelts is relatively low.
Habitat and Habits
Muskrats require a permanent supply of water. They occupy a variety of wetland habitats including fresh- and saltwater marshes, canals, ditches, ponds, lakes, rivers and other streams. Primarily plant eaters, muskrats feed on the roots, shoots and leaves of various aquatic plant species. They sometimes build platforms of vegetation for feeding activities in ponds and marshes. Mussels and clams are also a common food source. Piles of shells from freshwater mussels show where muskrats feed frequently, usually on rocks and along the banks of rivers and streams. Other food items are bark, acorns, frogs and small fish. In agricultural areas, feeding muskrats can damage soybeans and corn. Feeding activities are primarily nocturnal, but muskrats are often seen during daylight hours.
The muskrat is a very shy, non-aggressive animal that avoids humans. Because of its potential for damaging man made earthen dikes, dams and irrigation systems, there is a need to control its population. Licensed trappers take a variable number of muskrats each year. In addition, many others crossing highways are hit and killed by cars.
Where do muskrats live?
Muskrats require a permanent supply of water. They occupy a variety of wetland habitats including fresh and saltwater marshes, canals, ditches, ponds, lakes, rivers and streams. They can be found in much of the available wetlands habitat in the United States and Canada, but are absent from Florida and rare in some southern states. In North Carolina, they are common in most river systems and rare in the state’s southeastern coastal areas.
Why are muskrats trapped in North Carolina?
Muskrats are abundant in North Carolina and can be legally trapped during open season. Population densities are high in many areas and muskrats are more easily trapped than most other furbearers. In addition, because of their potential for damaging man-made earthen dikes, dams and irrigation systems, there is a need to control their population. And muskrats are coveted for their fur.
How do muskrats differ from beavers?
Muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes in the water. However, muskrats are half the size of beavers and sport a long (8-10 in.) narrow, flattened, hairless, rat-like tail. Unlike the beaver, the muskrat does not store food for the winter. It needs to eat fresh plants each day. To reach food under ice, muskrats sometimes make channels in the mud from their house to food sources.
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