Nature Muskrats named for breeding season smell

The rains came, the road was flooded at a small area at Seawall and right in the middle of this temporary puddle was a muskrat having a snack. My friend got out of her car to take a closer look. Muskrats are active all year here on the island, and where there is water they can be found at all seasons.

The road near Seawall is low going over the swampy section and often gets covered at least partially with the extra water. It makes traffic slow down and makes the ride more interesting. My friend also saw ducks swimming there.

Muskrats are curious little mammals — not as impressive as the larger beavers but interesting, nevertheless. One of my best viewings of the muskrat was underwater when I was snorkeling in a lake and saw one go by underneath. Its hair looked as if it were covered in diamonds. They are very good swimmers.

A muskrat is about the size of a house cat and sparsely haired. Its tail is long and thin and not at all like that of a beaver. Its shorter front paws have sharp nails for digging. The back feet are large and broad and partly webbed for swimming. During the breeding season a pair of musk glands near the base of the tail give off a pungent, musky odor, giving the mammal its name.

Muskrats are found in much of North America north of Mexico except in Florida and a few selected places in the south. They are considered to be semi-aquatic rodents.

Here on MDI, these small mammals either make a bank den or they build a muskrat lodge. It is much smaller than the lodge of the any of the beavers we have living here.

The type of den they makes depends on the water level. If you go on the water in Northeast Creek you will surely see muskrats. My best view there was of a mother muskrat transporting one of her young in her mouth to get it across the creek and to a safer location. My friend and I were just exploring in the area and luckily got to see the muskrat doing what most mothers do — protecting their children. Newborn muskrats are blind, almost naked and helpless. The litter may contain from one to five babies; four is a normal litter.

When the ice comes, muskrats will make some entrance holes here and there to form “breathing places” for them in cold weather. They stuff these holes with vegetation so they don’t close. These push-up breathing places don’t close up but when the ice melts, they disappear. Muskrats may not be handsome or beautiful but they are another interesting mammal sharing the island with us and are active throughout the year.

We are now in a new month and frigid winds and swirling snow greet us and well as sunshiny days. Trees and shrubs often glitter like diamonds in the morning sunshine. It is still a battle with the elements to find food and stay alive. Chickadees seem to enjoy a good blizzard and tiny kinglets feed unconcernedly in pine branches groaning beneath the snow.

Shrews hunt even in sub-zero weather, for no matter what time of year it is they must eat constantly to survive. Because of their secretive habits and small size you may not even know they exist unless your cat brings in a funny-looking mouse.

Don’t congratulate the cat on killing a shrew. Shrews are very beneficial in their expert ability to catch mice, and when compared with cats, shrews do a superior job of killing their prey. The shrew has the added advantage of being able to go anywhere a mouse can go.

Shrews themselves are mouse-like mammals with long pointed noses, short legs and tiny eyes often hidden in their short, thick, soft and velvety fur. There are four different shrews living on this island. They are the masked shrew, northern water shrew, pygmy shrew and the short-tailed shrew. When a shrew comes into your house all the mice will be gone and the shrew will leave. This is a good mammal to look up on the internet or in a good mammal book.

The pygmy shrew is one of the smallest mammals in the world, weighing only two ounces. They are reddish brown or grayish brown above and smoky grey below, and as you might suspect they spend most of their time under old stumps, rotting logs and among the ground litter of sedges, ferns and heavy spruces and pine trees bordering water. They are special to see. Shrews are active all year and very secretive.

Watch for redpolls coming to your feeder. Immature Bonaparte’s gulls may be seen in local harbors.

Nature is always full of surprises. Be ready for them.

Send any questions, observations or photos to [email protected] or call 244-3742


Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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