It’s not quite spring, but for muskrats it’s the start of the breeding season. As Captain and Tennille sang in 1976,“Muskrat Susie and Muskrat Sam, do the jitterbug out in muskrat land.” The singing duo was just the first of several artists to have a hit with a whimsical song written by Willis Alan Ramsey.
Pond owners find the real deal less adorable than the pair in the song, although they can be fun to watch. On land muskrats resemble a cross between a large rat and a small beaver, but land is not their preferred habitat.
Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) love to swim and can reach speeds of two to three miles per hour. They are peaceful creatures, sleeping away the day and yawning themselves awake for a swim at dusk. Then it’s feeding time, munching mostly on vegetation, but enjoying the occasional frog, fish or other small denizen that lives in or near the water.
Although they build lodges like beavers, muskrats are rodents and more closely related to rats and mice. The adult reaches a length of 16-24 inches including a long, flattened, nearly hairless tail. The musk refers to the odor they produce during mating season or to mark territory.
Unlike beavers, muskrats use mostly vegetation to construct their lodges rather than small trees and sticks. They may not kill trees and flood large waterways like beavers, but muskrats can become pests when they burrow into the banks of farm ponds, suburban retention ponds or golf course water features, causing seepage or bank ruptures.
If muskrats become a nuisance, they can be trapped, but they are subject to hunting and trapping regulations and cannot be trapped out of season without a special license. For that reason it’s best to call a professional animal control expert.
Their thick double coat once made muskrats a popular substitute for mink with furriers, but wearing fur is no longer chic in this country. A spike in the number of muskrats trapped for their fur is only because nouveau riche Chinese don’t mind wearing fur, and they don’t care if it’s the more expensive and elusive wild mink or more easily obtained muskrat.
For those who enjoy watching the water acrobatics of the muskrat, pond banks can be protected with chicken wire buried down to the bottom of the bank and then covered in heavy stone or the limestone slabs commonly quarried when digging a pond is southwestern Ohio. Thicker, wider pond banks also prevent damage. If the pond is large enough, a hill in the middle makes a happy muskrat home.
One reason to learn to live with muskrats rather then trying to eliminate them is as soon as Susie and Sam are gone, Ricky and Lucy are likely to move in. Muskrats produce one to five litters per year with four to seven young. Muskrats are territorial, making it imperative for the young to seek new ponds and waterways where they can court a mate as they “whirl and twirl and tango.”