Sunday, March 6, 2011

New Muskrat in Town!

The muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus.
Nice weather allowed me to linger by the pond in Brooklyn Bridge Park last weekend. I was rewarded with a look at the resident muskrat. The pond was built last summer so this muskrat is a recent immigrant. It has moved into a trendy neighborhood just south of the bridge in view of lower Manhattan, New York Harbor, and the Statue of Liberty.

I watched the muskrat collect leaves and grass from the bank and carry them to the water, stop to rearrange the load just right in its mouth, paddle a short distance, and then disappear underwater. It resurfaced after a while and went on shore for another load. It did this for an hour and was still working when I left.

The muskrat is a rodent, but not technically a rat. It does smell "musky" and marks its territory with oil produced by musk glands near the base of its tail. Muskrats are one to two feet long from nose to tail tip; half of that length is tail. They weigh from about a pound and a half to four pounds.

Their tails are flattened vertically (opposite of the famous beaver tail shape). The muskrats waves its tail from side to side to propel itself forward through water.

The muskrat paddles its tail from side to side. 
Muskrats always live near water. In marshes they build lodges similar to those of beavers. Their city dwellings are more likely to be along the banks of rivers, ponds, and ditches where they build nests with underwater entrances.

You know how we always hear about invasive animal pests that have been introduced to the America  from Europe like pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows? The muskrat is just the opposite; it is a native American species that has invaded Europe! Muskrats were deliberately introduced to Czechoslovakia and a few other places in the early 1900s to try to establish a population to hunt for fur. One early report describes feeding the founder muskrats on carrots and potatoes.

The muskrats thrived and spread through Europe before their bad habits were discovered. Muskrats can weaken earthen banks and levees by burrowing. They contribute to floods, undermine embankments, and disturb fishing nets. They can go inland from waterways near agricultural fields and eat the roots and soft tasty tips of growing crops. Muskrats are now digging up banks and causing problems throughout continental Western Europe.

One of my favorite bits of gossip about muskrats is their history with Michigan Catholics. Although muskrats have traditionally been trapped for food in other parts of the country, they have a special status in Michigan. They were historically eaten on Fridays when church rules prohibited the consumption of meat. Although the origins of the custom seem to be lost in time, and the church has no record of any official dispensation for Michigan muskrat, the tradition is firmly established. It is echoed to this day in fire houses and VFW halls where feasts of muskrat are served with mashed potatoes and creamed corn. And there are still a few diners in Michigan that serve up a muskrat special. For a little more of that peculiar history from the Catholic News Service, click here.


  1. One of my Facebook friends said this, lol:

    It's true. (the line about eating muskrat equals doing penance). Had it a few times growing up. It was edible stewed, if the fat was removed beforehand, but not my favorite meat. Like waterfowl, it takes on the flavor of the food it eats. Texture like chicken is about right. Might be better roasted with bacon.

  2. I live in Canarsie, Brooklyn close to the Paerdegats. I was blown away today when I noticed a muskrat in the gated area close to the Paerdegat Athletic club. I'm used to the racoons and possums.