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It’s in your nature: Muskrats

Until I was nearly 14 years old, I lived along Main Road in East Weissport. For a nature guy and still too young to drive, I was lucky to have some nature areas around me.

Tar Run, a small stream, ran behind our house and this was perfect. I built dams (never did become an engineer), caught bullfrogs and creek chubs, watched water snakes catch fish, and whatever else interested me.

If that wasn’t enough, I simply rode my Huffy bicycle a half mile east to the Phifer Ice Dams or rode about ¾ of a mile west to the Lehigh Canal. When I made an early morning canal fishing trip, I often saw muskrats swimming from bank to bank and then submerging and disappearing for a minute or two. The name muskrat was derived from the fact that males use a scent gland (with musk) to mark their areas to attract potential mates.

We later moved into Lehighton Borough and my muskrat viewing and easy fishing spots were now less accessible. The last 15 or 20 years, as I spend more and more time outdoors, has not increased my muskrat sightings. They seemed to disappear. After doing some research, it appears that the muskrat population has taken a huge drop.

Data from fur trappers shows a tremendous drop in muskrats taken. But, yes, there are many less trappers so maybe that isn’t the best statistic. However, biologists in Pennsylvania and throughout the country have seen the same dramatic decline.

Note, the muskrat is found in almost every state, with limited numbers in the drier southwest. This rodent resembles a miniature beaver with a long ratlike tail, not a broad flat tail like the beaver. The eyes and ears are rather small but they still have excellent senses. They do not hibernate and their lodges in ponds or marshes allows them underwater access, even under winter’s ice, to get to the plant roots and stems that they prefer.

Muskrats weigh 2 to 3 pounds and reach 22 inches from tip of their nose to the end of the tail. The hind feet are mostly webbed and they and the tail aid in its swimming abilities. Their dense fur helps them stay dry and warm. They are prolific breeders with sometimes 4 litters a year with 5 to 8 young at a time. That being said, why the population decline?

Several factors are suspected. First, we are losing our valuable wetlands at an alarming rate. They expect excessive herbicide and pesticide use is another factor. Finally, there are some diseases now being studied to see if they may be playing the biggest role. Even though muskrats can play havoc with farms pond (burrowing) they are a valuable prey item for mink, owls, hawks, foxes and even snapping turtles. Their value as prey alone makes me hope their numbers can recover.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The average life span of a muskrat is ___. A. one year, B. 3 years, C. 5 years, D. 10 or more.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: American beech trees hold on to their dead leaves often until late March and on your winter drive or hike, are easy to identify then.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

ABOVE: I found this muskrat days after our largest snowstorm. It was at least 50 yards from the nearest pond feeding on some grass at the base of a tree. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A muskrat does its “muskrat's best” to hurry atop the snow. Note it has a ratlike tail quite unlike a beaver's flat tail.
LEFT: Beavers build a lodge of tree and shrub trunks, and both their lodge and a muskrat's have underwater entrances for safety.