The muskrat is the largest microtine rodent in the United States. It spends its life in aquatic habitats and is well adapted for swimming. Its large hind feet are partially webbed, stiff hairs align the toes, and its laterally flattened tail is almost as long as its body. The muskrat has a stocky appearance, with small eyes and very short, rounded ears. Its front feet, which are much smaller than its hind feet, are adapted primarily for digging and feeding.
The name muskrat, common throughout the animal’s range, derives from the paired perineal musk glands found beneath the skin at the ventral base of the tail in both sexes. These musk glands are used during the breeding season. Musk is secreted on logs or other defecation areas, around houses, bank dens, and trails on the bank to mark the area.
Muskrats are primarily herbivores. They will eat almost any aquatic vegetation as well as some field crops grown adjacent to suitable habitat. Some of the preferred natural foods include cattail, pickerelweed, bulrush, smartweed, duck potato, horsetail, water lily, sedges, young willow regeneration, and other aquatics. Crops that are occasionally damaged include corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, grain sorghum, and sugarcane. Rice grown as a flooded crop is a common muskrat food. It is not uncommon, however, to see muskrats subsisting primarily on upland vegetation such as bermuda grass, clover, johnsongrass, and orchard grass where planted or growing on or around farm pond dams.
Although primarily herbivores, muskrats will also feed on crayfish, mussels, turtles, frogs, and fish in ponds where vegetation is scarce. In some aquaculture industry areas, this feeding habit should be studied, as it may differ significantly from normal feeding activity and can cause economic loss.
Damage caused by muskrats is primarily due to their burrowing activity. Burrowing may not be readily evident until serious damage has occurred. Where damage is occurring to a crop, plant cutting is generally evident. In aquaculture reservoirs generally maintained without lush aquatic vegetation, muskrat runs and burrows or remains of mussels, crayfish, or fish along with other muskrat signs (tracks or droppings) are generally easy to observe.
Although a variety of trapping methods are often employed in trying to control muskrat damage, a combination of trapping and integrated pest management techniques is often the most effective means of controlling muskrats: (1) modify the habitat by removing available food (vegetation); (2) concentrate efforts to reduce the breeding population during winter months while muskrats are concentrated in overwintering habitat; and (3) use trapping in combination with the above methods.
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