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Photo Credit: John White
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Ondatra zibethicus
DESCRIPTION: The muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) is a rodent closely related to and resembling the field mouse, except for the muskrat’s larger size. It is a stocky animal with a broad head and short legs weighing from one to four pounds. Its scaly tail is flattened laterally, and sparsely haired. The pelt consists of soft, thick underfur with long, glossy dark-red to dusky-brown guard hairs. The front feet, used primarily for digging and feeding, are unwebbed and have four sharp-clawed toes with a small thumb. The large hind feet are partially webbed with stiff hairs along the toes. The bodies of muskrats measure 10-14 inches in length, with the tail measuring almost as long as its body.
DISTRIBUTION: Muskrats can be found from near the Arctic Circle in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and are found in every state with the exception of Florida.
HABITAT: Muskrats frequent a large variety of habitats including ditches, streams, marshes, lakes, beaver ponds, mine pits, farm ponds, and other wetland areas. For shelter, muskrats sometimes build a cone-shaped lodge of mud and sticks. This lodge may be five feet in diameter at the base and may reach three feet above the water. Bank dens or burrows are also often excavated for shelters. Both lodges and bank burrow type shelters may have several underwater entrances.
FEEDING HABITS: Muskrats are primarily vegetarians, relishing cattails, bulrush, smartweed, duck potato, horsetail, water lily, sedges, young willow sprouts, and pickerel weed. They will eat almost any type of aquatic vegetation, including the bulbs, roots, tubers, stems, and leaves of numerous wetland plants. Some field crops, when grown close to suitable habitat, are utilized for food. During times when vegetative food sources are low, muskrats may eat animals including crayfish, mussels, turtles, frogs, and fish.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Muskrats are monogamous breeders (each male and female forming a pair) and are very prolific. In Alabama, muskrats have three to four young per litter and may have three or more litters per year. They may breed year round, but the breeding season usually runs from March through October.
Collins, Henry Hill, 1981 Harper and Row’s Complete Guide to North American Wildlife, Eastern Edition, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, N.Y.. 714 pp.
Yarrow, Greg K., 1998 Managing Wildlife on Private Lands in Alabama and the Southeast. Sweetwater Press. Birmingham, Alabama. 588 pp.
AUTHOR: Tracy Nelson, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, September 2006