"Having finished this first course of big-neck clams, they were joined by a third muskrat, and, together, they filed over the bank and down into the meadow. Shortly two of them returned with great mouthfuls of the mud-bleached ends of calamus-blades. Then followed the washing.
They dropped their loads upon the plank, took up the stalks, pulled the blades apart, and soused them up and down in the water, rubbing them with their paws until they were as clean and white as the whitest celery one ever ate. What a dainty picture! Two little brown creatures, humped on the edge of a plank, washing calamus in moonlit water!"
—Dallas Lore Sharp
RACKING is a part of every boy's education who aspires to a knowledge of wood lore; and a boy with this accomplishment is sure to be looked upon with great admiration by other boys, less skilled in the interpretation of that writing made by small feet, on the soft snow or on the mud of stream margins. To such a boy, the track of the muskrat is well known, and very easily recognized.
The muskrat is essentially a water animal, and therefore its tracks are to be looked for along the edges of ponds, streams or in marshes. Whether the tracks are made by walking or jumping, depends upon the depth of the snow or mud; if it is deep, the animal jumps, but in shallow snow or mud, it simply runs along. The tracks show the front feet to be smaller than the hind ones. The muskrat track is, however, characterized by the tail imprint. When the creature jumps through the snow, the mark of the tail follows the paired imprints of the feet; when it walks, there is a continuous line made by this strong, naked tail. This distinguishes the track of the muskrat from that of the mink, as the bushy tail of the latter does not make so distinct a mark. Measuring the track, is simply a device for making the pupils note its size and shape more carefully. The tracks may be looked for during the thaws of March or February, when the muskrats come out of the water to seek food.
In appearance the muskrat is peculiar. The body is usually about a foot in length and the tail about eight inches. The body is stout and thickset, the head is rounded and looks like that of a giant meadow mouse; the eyes are black and shining; the ears are short and close to the head; the teeth, like those of other rodents, consist of a pair of front teeth on each jaw, then a long, bare space and four grinders on each side. There are long sensitive hairs about the nose and mouth, like the whiskers of mice.
The muskrat's hind legs are much larger and stronger than the front ones; and too, the hind feet are much longer than the front feet and have a web between the toes; there are also stiff hairs which fill the space between the toes, outside the web, thus making this large hind foot an excellent swimming organ. The front toes are not webbed and are used for digging. The claws are long, stout and sharp. The tail is long, stout and flattened at the sides; it has little or no fur upon it but is covered with scales; it is used as a scull and also as a rudder when the muskrat is swimming.
The muskrat's outer coat consists of long, rather coarse hairs; its under coat is of fur, very thick and fine, and although short, it forms a waterproof protection for the body of the animal. In color, the fur is dark brown above with a darker streak along the middle of the back; beneath, the body is grayish changing to whitish on the throat and lips, with a brown spot on the chin. In preparing the pelts for commercial use, the long hairs are plucked out leaving the soft, fine under coat, which is dyed and sold under the name of "electric seal."
The muskrat is far better fitted by form, for life in the water than upon the land. Since it is heavy-bodied and short-legged, it cannot run rapidly but its strong, webbed hind feet are most efficient oars, and it swims rapidly and easily; for rudder and propeller the strong, flattened tail serves admirably, while the fine fur next the body is so perfectly waterproof that, however much the muskrat swims or dives, it is never wet. It is a skillful diver and can stay under water for several minutes; when swimming, its nose and sometimes the head and the tip of the tail appear on the surface of the water.
The food of muskrats is largely roots, especially those of the sweet flag and the yellow lily. They also feed on other aquatic plants and are fond of the fresh-water shell-fish. Mr. Sharp tells us, in one of his delightful stories, how the muskrats wash their food by sousing it up and down in water many times before eating it. Often, a muskrat chooses some special place upon the shore which it uses for a dining-room, bringing there and eating pieces of lily root or fresh-water clams, and leaving the debris to show where it habitually dines. It does most of its hunting for food at night, although sometimes it may be seen thus employed during the day.
The winter lodge of the muskrat is a most interesting structure. A foundation of tussocks of rushes, in a stream or shallow pond, is built upon with reeds plastered with mud, making a rather regular dome which may be nearly two or three feet high; or, if many-chambered, it may be a grand affair of four or five feet elevation; but it always looks so much like a natural hummock that the eye of the uninitiated never regards it as a habitation. Always beneath this dome and above the water line, is a snug, covered chamber carpeted with a soft bed of leaves and moss, which has a passage leading down into the water below, and also has an air-hole for ventilation. In these cabins, closely cuddled together, three or four in a chamber, the muskrats pass the winter. After the pond is frozen they are safe from their enemies and are always able to go down into the water and feed upon the roots of water plants. These cabins are sometimes built in the low, drooping branches of willows or on other objects.
Whether the muskrat builds itself a winter lodge or not, depends upon the nature of the shore which it inhabits; if it is a place particularly fitted for burrows, then a burrow will be used as a winter retreat; but if the banks are shallow, the muskrats unite in building cabins. The main entrance to the muskrat burrow is always below the surface of the water, the burrow slanting upward and leading to a nest well lined, which is above the reach of high water; there is always an air hole above, for ventilating this nest, and there is also often a passage, with a hidden entrance, leading out to dry land.
The flesh of the muskrat is delicious, and therefore the animal has many enemies; foxes, weasels, dogs, minks and also hawks and owls prey upon it. It escapes the sight of its enemies as does the mouse, by having the color of its fur not noticeable; when discovered, it escapes its enemies by swimming, although when cornered, it is courageous and fights fiercely, using its strong incisors as weapons. In winter, it dwells in safety when the friendly ice protects it from all its enemies except the mink; but it is exposed to great danger when the streams break up in spring, for it is then often driven from its cabin by floods, and preyed upon while thus helplessly exposed. The muskrat gives warning of danger to its fellows by splashing the water with its strong tail.
It is called muskrat because of the odor, somewhat resembling musk, which it exhales from two glands on the lower side of the body between the hind legs; these glands may be seen when the skin is removed, which is the too common plight of this poor creature, since it is hunted mercilessly for its pelt.
The little muskrats are born in April and there are usually from six to eight in a litter. Another litter may be produced in June or July and a third in August or September. It is only thus, by rearing large families often, that the muskrats are able to hold their own against the hunters and trappers and their natural enemies.
References—Wild Animals, Stone & Cram; A Watcher in the Woods, Sharp; Wild Life, Ingersoll; Farmers' Bulletin No. 396, U. S. Dept. of Agriculture.
Leading thought—The muskrat, while a true rodent, is fitted for life in the water more than for life upon the land. Its hind feet are webbed for use as oars and its tail is used as a rudder. It builds lodges of mud, cat-tails and rushes in which it spends the winter.
Method—It might be well to begin this work by asking for observations on the tracks of the muskrat which may be found about the edges of almost any creek, pond or marsh. If there are muskrat lodges in the region they should be visited and described. For studying the muskrat's form a live muskrat in captivity is almost necessary. If one is trapped with a "figure four" it will not be injured and it may be made more or less tame by feeding it with sweet apples, carrots and parsnips. The pupils can thus study it at leisure although they should not be allowed to handle the creature as it inflicts very severe wounds and is never willing to be handled. If a live muskrat cannot be obtained perhaps some hunter in the neighborhood will supply a dead one for this observation lesson.
While studying the muskrat the children should read all the stories of beavers which are available as the two animals are very much alike in their habits.
1. In what locality have you discovered the tracks of the muskrat? Describe its general appearance. Measure the muskrat's track as follows: (a) Width and length of the print of one foot; (b) the width between the prints of the two hind feet; (c) the length between the prints made by the hind feet in several successive steps or jumps.
2. Was the muskrat's track made when the animal was jumping or walking? Can you see in it a difference in the size of the front and hind feet? Judging from the track, where do you think the muskrat came from? What do you think it was hunting for?
3. What mark does the tail make in the snow or mud? Judging by its imprint, should you think the muskrat's tail was long or short, bare or brushy, slender or strong?
4. How long is the largest muskrat you ever saw? How much of the whole length is tail? Is the general shape of the body short and heavy or long and slender?
5. Describe the muskrat's eyes, ears and teeth. For what are the teeth especially fitted? Has the muskrat whiskers like mice and rats?
6. Compare the front and hind legs as to size and shape. Is there a web between the toes of the hind feet? What does this indicate? Do you think that the muskrat is a good swimmer?
7. Describe the muskrat fur. Compare the outer and under coat. What is its color above and below? What is the name of muskrat fur in the shops?
8. Describe the tail. What is its covering? How is it flattened? What do you think this strong, flattened tail is used for?
9. Do you think the muskrat is better fitted to live in the water than on land? How is it fitted to live in the water in the following particulars: Feet? Tail? Fur?
10. How much of the muskrat can you see when it is swimming? How long can it stay under water when diving?
11. What is the food of the muskrat? Where does it find it? How does it prepare the food for eating? Does it seek its food during the night or day? Have you ever observed the muskrat's dining room? If so, describe it.
12. Describe the structure of the muskrat's winter lodge, or cabin, in the following particulars: Its size. Where built? Of what material? How many rooms in it? Are these rooms above or below the water level? Of what is the bed made? How is the nest ventilated? How is it arranged so that the entrance is not closed by the ice? Is such a home built by one or more muskrats? How many live within it? Do the muskrats always build these winter cabins? What is the character of the shores where they are built?
13. Describe the muskrat's burrow in the bank in the following particulars: Is the entrance above or below water? Where and how is the nest made? Is it ventilated? Does it have a back door leading out upon the land?
14. What are the muskrat's enemies? How does it escape them? How does it fight? Is it a courageous animal? How does the muskrat give warning to its fellows when it perceives danger? At what time of year is it comparatively safe? At what time is it exposed to greatest danger?
15. Why is this animal called muskrat? Compare the habits of muskrats with those of beaver and write an English theme upon the similarity of the two.
16. At what time of year do you find the young muskrats? How many in a litter?
17. Read Farmers' Bulletin No. 396 of the U. S. Dept. of Agriculture and write an English theme on the destructive habits of muskrats and the economic uses of these animals.
Supplementary reading—Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge; Little Beasts of Field and Wood, Cram; Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers, Burroughs; "The Builders" in Ways of Wood Folk, Long.