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Muskrats

Low Water Levels Provide Palette for Tracks

10-27-16-tracks2-1The low water levels in our ponds this fall do have one benefit – visitors leave obvious signs in the exposed muddy banks. It is fairly astounding how much nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife regularly visits these spots and remains undetected by humans under normal conditions.

 Under cover of darkness, White-tailed Deer, Mink, Raccoons and a variety of birds and small mammals frequently visit and leave traces of their presence in the form of tracks. Other creatures whose tracks you may well find in the exposed mud of wetlands this year include Beavers, Muskrats and River Otters.

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Muddy Muskrat

7-24-15  muskrat IMG_5542I’m posting this additional image of a cattail rhizome-digging muskrat’s muddy face in the hopes that Naturally Curious readers find it as amusing as I do.

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Muskrats Busy Feeding

7-24-15  muskrats IMG_4435For the most part, muskrats are herbivores. They consume with relish the leaves, stems and rhizomes of emergent aquatic plants such as cattails, bulrushes, sedges, horsetails, water lilies and arrowheads. Fish, frogs and invertebrates, including crayfish and clams, are also eaten to a lesser extent. Muskrats are voracious eaters (captive muskrats eat 25 – 30% of their weight daily). When their numbers are very high, muskrats can cause what is referred to as an “eat-out,” where they mow down everything in sight.

Like beavers, muskrats can close their upper lips behind their incisors in order to cut plants underwater without taking in water and choking. (photo: two young muskrats feeding on aquatic vegetation)

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Coyotes Feeding on Deer Carcasses

12-22-14 deer carcass 394Ninety percent of a coyote’s diet is animal matter, including creatures as varied as meadow voles, mice, muskrats, raccoons, beetles and grasshoppers — basically, anything it can outrun. Coyotes have the reputation as major predators of deer. While research confirms that deer (and rabbits) comprise a good portion of a coyote’s diet in the Northeast, the majority of the deer that coyotes consume is scavenged as carrion (see photo). Because they cannot move as fast as adult deer, fawns are more vulnerable to coyote predation.

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Muskrats Enjoying Last Days Above Ice

12-22-14  MUSKRAT IMG_3496Muskrats and beavers are eking out the last few days that they will spend above the ice for perhaps several months. Fortunately for muskrats, they can hold their breath and remain under water for up to 20 minutes, time enough to get from one unfrozen patch of water to another. Once the ice freezes completely, muskrats will use ‘push-ups’ or ‘breathers’ as resting places and breathing holes — masses of vegetation collected from underwater and pushed up through cracks or holes in the ice.

Throughout the year muskrats eat the roots and stems of a number of aquatic plants as well as crayfish, frogs, turtles and other prey, when available. Unlike beavers, muskrats don’t store food for the winter, but forage for vegetation (see green plants on ice). Sometimes muskrats will feed from the winter food supply piles gathered by beavers. They have also been known to use the walls of their own lodge as food.

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Muskrats Constructing Lodges

10-8-14 muskrat lodge3 012Muskrats, in addition to digging bank dens, also build lodges in which to live. Muskrat lodges resemble beaver lodges, but are usually much smaller (up to eight feet high, and four feet wide) and are made of vegetation, not sticks, like beaver lodges. Most lodge construction occurs in May and early June, and again in October. Typically they are built in no more than two feet of water. A single dry chamber (entrance below, chamber above the water line) houses a pair of muskrats, and often several litters of young (the mother adds a chamber for each litter). Even though the walls of a muskrat lodge are up to a foot thick, mink, foxes and coyotes often dig into them in the winter. Two or three smaller versions of a lodge, called “pushups,” serve as protected feeding platforms.

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Muskrats Mating

4-29-14 mating muskrats2  099 Muskrats breed year round in southern U.S., but in New England ice-out usually determines when they first breed. These largely monogamous rodents take to the water to copulate after a mad chase that often lasts several minutes. Successive breedings take place all summer. By the time one litter is weaned and independent (about four weeks), the mother is about to give birth again. Several litters of five or six young are produced each year, with the mother caring for her young up until they are weaned, and the father then taking over.

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