WC isn’t talking about Willis Alan Ramsey’s odious song, although WC will really have to do a blog post about Ramsey some day, and his (in)famous second album. “Muskrat Love,” originally “Muskrat Candlelight,” was covered by a lot of folks but made a hit by The Captain and Tensile back in 1976. Ars non disputanden and all that.
Rather, WC is writing about the seriously under-appreciated, largest member of the subfamily Arvicolinae, which includes 142 other species of rodents, mostly voles and lemmings. Muskrat aren’t rats.1 Despite having that musky smell, they aren’t Mustellids, and they are not related to beavers, which they somewhat resemble. They are one of the very few mammals whose tail is oriented vertically, to serve as a kind of rudder. They can swim underwater for as long as 17 minutes. And they have successfully adapted to the loss of the wetlands they favor by colonizing canals and irrigation ditches. Muskrat also have a high tolerance for waters polluted with mine waste, surviving in water that kills other water organisms.
While Muskrat will eat small animals and insect larvae if the opportunity presents itself, they are primarily herbivores, feeding on native reeds and grasses, aquatic plants and young shrubs. A population of muskrat can keep a wetland open, all by themselves. Knowledgeable irrigators tolerate them for their help in keeping the water channels open. But muskrat disdain many introduced water plants.
Muskrat breed like . . . well, they breed like their cousins, lemmings. It’s not unusual for a single pair to have three litters of six to nine pups a year. It’s just as well they are prolific; they are an important part of the food chain for many species of carnivore. For example, muskrat are rare in Florida, where they are the favored food of alligators.2
Muskrat dens are typically mounds of vegetation along the banks of water bodies, and always have an underwater entrance. They are called “push-ups” in some parts of the country, and WC has watched moose eat a muskrat den, with apparent relish.
Someone more knowledgeable about Catholic doctrine than WC will have to explain this, but in Michigan and Wisconsin, a longstanding dispensation allows Catholics to consume muskrat on Fridays, when the eating of flesh, except for fish, is prohibited. The dispensation dates back to at least the early 19th century. In 1974, was a guest at a muskrat dinner during Lent outside of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. WC was told, by his hostess, that the preparation involved the removal of the musk glands and the gutting and cleaning of the carcass, before the meat was parboiled for four hours with onion and garlic and finally fried. WC has eaten some intensely gamey wild meats, but muskrat, despite that cooking effort, was unbelievably gamey-tasting. Strong enough WC thinks that dispensation might have been intended as a penance in itself.
Muskrat have been introduced in Europe and Asia, with the usual bad results, although WC has read that central Asia’s Golden Jackals think it was a fine idea. In Europe, they are regarded as a pest.
But in their native range, they are brilliantly adapted and adaptable.
Incidentally, muskrat sex is a brutal business. Courtship involves little more than the male sniffing the female. Mating involves the male holding the female underwater during copulation. Ramsey got it seriously wrong. But then pop songs are notoriously bad at descriptive biology.
1 There’s disagreement on the plural of “muskrat.” WC is a member of the Moose School, holding that the plural of “muskrat” is “muskrat.” YMMV.
2 Interestingly, in Florida the ecological nice of muskrat is occupied by the Florida water rat (Neofiber alleni), which alligators seem to find unpalatable. WC hadn’t realized there was something alligators wouldn’t eat.