Home > Columns > Muskrat


NatureSmart Column


Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

January 22, 2021

This winter has been a bit strange in the northland where I reside. Not much snow but enough cold temperatures to start freezing the lakes. The small lakes and ponds freeze up tight right away, but the larger lakes have open water near the center or in the deeper areas. While out photographing the other day, I noticed something small, round and brown at the edge of the open water. A Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had climbed out of the water and was enjoying the remaining sunlight of the day. I immediately thought how this is a critter that is overlooked in nature.

Despite their name, Muskrats are not rats. They are not even in the rat family. Instead, they are more closely related to voles and lemmings. They are a medium sized semiaquatic rodent that is native to North America, but they have been introduced to much of Europe, Russia, Asia and South America.

The name Muskrat is believed to come from the Algonquian Indian language, “musascus”, which means “it is red”, apparently from the color of the fur. It is also believed that since this animal produces a musky smell that they use to mark its territory and it has a naked tail like a rat, the name was altered to musk-rat then formally changed to Muskrat.

I find that many people mistake the Muskrat with the Beaver because they share similar habitat. However, the Muskrat is a fraction of the size of the Beaver. The Muskrat is only about 16-25 inches in length with half of that as the tail. Beavers range from 35-49 inches long with their tail making up only about 12 inches. Muskrats weigh 2-4 pounds while beavers coming in between 30 to 70 pounds. That is huge difference.

The fur of the Muskrat is short, thick and very soft. The fur has two layers, a short layer which provides warmth and waterproofness, and the longer hairs provide the shape, color, and protection from physical objects in the environment. The fur is why Muskrats can swim in nearly freezing cold water or stand around on the ice in winter and not be cold. They spend a lot of time grooming and taking care of their fur.

Muskrats spend a lot of time in the water. They are well adapted for an aquatic lifestyle. Their hind feet are partly webbed, and the toes have a fringe of stiff hairs all of which helps them when swimming. Their tail is naked, as are most of the animals in the vole family, but the Muskrats tail is flatted on both sides (laterally compressed). No other animal in North America has this trait. It is believed the tail shape helps propel them when swimming.

These cool critters are active any time of the day or night. They live in small to medium sized groups, which are broken down into family units with one male and one female and their young. They feed mostly on aquatic vegetation, typically the lower quarter of a plant. About 95 percent of their diet is plants. But they also eat small animals such as crayfish, snails, frogs and fish.

The preferred habitat are shallow lakes and ponds where the water is no more than 4 feet deep. They make homes, called lodges, from aquatic vegetation. It is easy to tell the difference between a Beaver lodge and a Muskrat lodge. The Beaver lodge is constructed of woody vegetation such as sticks and branches from trees. The Muskrat lodge is constructed of green or herbaceous plants such as cattails and bullrush.

The Muskrat lodge stands above the water but has an underwater entrance. The walls can be upwards of two feet thick and provide a warm and safe interior environment. Studies show that during winter, the interior of the lodge can be upwards of 30 degrees F warmer than the outside air temperatures.

Muskrats don’t hibernate during winter. They remain active under the ice and inside their lodge. Unlike Beavers, they don’t store food for winter. They continue to feed upon aquatic vegetation, sometimes eating the walls of their lodge. They make narrow channels through the cattail marsh which they use during winter when all the water is frozen.

So, this winter, keep an eye out for a small round furball sitting on the edge of the open water. You might be seeing the incredible Muskrat. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

Recent Columns
Most RecentAbout Stan's Columns


This year we seemed to zip right past Groundhog Day without even noticing. Perhaps this is because during Covid time, everyday seems the same, just like the movie Groundhog Day. Nothing new or different. Just one day like the other. But for the Groundhog, also known as the Woodchuck, spring is a...

White Fur

As winter loosens its grip on the northern states and it finally feels like spring, my mind turns to all the changes in nature. In particular, the animals in the northern climates that change the color of their coats (pelage) or the birds that change their feathers (plumage) from brown to white...

Bison and Wolf

The bison turned quickly, ready to charge. The two feet of snow didn’t slow its powerful hooves but rather kicked up a rooster-tail of shinny ice crystals into the cold winter air, highlighting the Bison’s efforts. What was surprising was how quickly the pack of wolves turned around...

Dog eat Dog World

There is no question about it! It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, and now I have proof. Recently on a trip to film wolves in Yellowstone National Park, I was reminded of this old saying. The week before I arrived an associate of mine witnessed a coyote chasing a Red Fox through the deep snow....

Wildlife Photography Tours

Each year, during June and July, Stan Tekiela offers two world-class wildlife photography tours. Here's your chance to learn some tricks of the trade from a top professional.

» More Info

View all of the titles in the
NatureSmart Bookstore

Check out Stan's latest photos at
NatureSmart Wildlife Images

Do you have any interesting wildlife in your backyard? Any nesting birds, deer, turkeys, reptiles, amphibians, or other unique wildlife? Or maybe a fox or coyote den?

If so, contact Stan at stan@naturesmart.com with your backyard wildlife. If he can get a good photo of the subject, he will send you a print of the photo to hang on your wall.

» More Info

Order Prints and posters of Stan's photos at
» Prints & Posters

Hear Stan on radio stations all across the Midwest.
» More Info