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The muskrat mystique

A word for the perpetually damp rodents of the Yahara Watershed.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

If you need some serenity, let me suggest taking a walk in Tenney Park and seeing if you can spot a muskrat. Last week I encountered one munching on grass and leaves along the shore of Lake Mendota, just a hundred yards or so west of the lock where the lake meets the Yahara River. I walked up a little too fast, and it scurried back to the water and hid out for a few minutes. It came back to continue gathering food and just ignored the nearby ducks and me as I crouched about five feet away, getting a little closer and trying my luck to get some photos.

During the pandemic, plenty of people have noted the benefits of simply getting outdoors. My colleague Jane Burns wrote a wonderful piece in May for her Cheese And Basketball newsletter about the history lessons she stumbled upon in a couple of Madison’s less-appreciated parks. Just getting to spend some time watching a critter I’ve only ever seen in quick flashes, usually swimming by in the Yahara, brightened my week up considerably. 

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“The best times for viewing are generally going to be early mornings and right before dusk, though muskrats may be active at any time day or night,” says Curtis Twellman, assistant furbearer ecologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

They’re not paddle-tailed beavers, long and sleek river otters, or palpably belligerent woodchucks. Muskrats are easy to mistake for any of those three at a glance, but really they’re doing their own thing. Twellman points out that muskrats are also good at reproducing, birthing up to three litters per year under good conditions. But I think they’re still more interesting than the Madison area’s almost unavoidable rabbits. Sorry, rabbits! 

After posting some muskrat photos on social media and searching around a bit, I found out that a variety of Madisonians appreciate our perpetually damp and disheveled friend Ondatra ziebethicus. Bonnie Willison, a video producer with UW Sea Grant, captured some fascinating footage in December of a muskrat zooming along under the ice on Lake Mendota. A couple of social-media friends also claimed to have encountered the same muskrat I did at Tenney. The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 2006 that muskrats swim “for the heck of it.” In a recent post on the UW-Madison Center for Limnology’s blog, Twellman even answered questions from a five-year-old muskrat fan.

“Look on any shoreline for slightly muddy trails going to softball-sized holes under water to identify bank dens,” Twellman says. “If there is clear ice you can find these muskrat runs by looking for bubble trails.”

Keep looking as summer turns to fall, when, Twellman says, “you will start to see grass and shrub “huts” start to pop up around local marshes. These are feeding and resting ‘push ups’ or ‘huts’ that muskrats use all winter.” 

Watching that little muskrat in Tenney Park stuff leaves and blades of grass into its mouth with distinctive long-fingered paws, I was reminded that the Yahara River and its chain of lakes is a complex ecosystem running through our little pocket of urbanity. Like any creature, muskrats play a complex role within that ecosystem.

“Muskrats can be beneficial to wetlands by creating open water in the cattails to be used by ducks and other water birds. They can also cause damage if the population gets too high, both by denuding the vegetation and by compromising the shoreline or dams,” Twellman says. “Certainly an important part of the ecosystem, muskrats are also a prey source for many predators. Mink, river otter, birds of prey, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, and even big fish all prey on muskrats.”

Even when it starts getting cold again and rolling into next spring, the muskrat-watching isn’t over. You might catch them on or under the ice, toughing it out through a sparse season. Even if you just spot one furtively paddling away in a river or lake this summer, I hope it brings you a moment of peace and charm.

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