Art Lander’s Outdoors: The muskrat is a native furbearer found in a variety of Kentucky waters
The Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) is a native furbearer found in farm ponds, slow-moving rivers, lakes and wetlands, wherever aquatic vegetation is present.
They can be hunted or trapped during a 111-day season, which began November 11 and runs through February 29, in Kentucky.
Muskrats are trapped for their fur pelts, which are used to make hats, jackets and coats.
Demand for their pelts, and other wild furs in general, has decreased dramatically in recent decades. This season a Muskrat pelt may only bring three to four dollars at fur auctions, according to the 2019-20 Fur Price Forecast, posted on www.trappingtoday.com
The Muskrat is one of 12 furbearers hunted or trapped in Kentucky, including Raccoon, Opossum, Coyote, Bobcat, River Otter, Mink, Beaver, Red Fox, Gray Fox, Weasel and Striped Skunk.
Regulations vary by species. View Kentucky’s furbearer regulations online at fw.ky.gov.
Geographic Range and Distribution in Kentucky
Muskrats are indigenous to North America, found from near the Arctic Circle in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories southward throughout central and southern Canada.
They are found in most of the Lower 48 States, but absent from parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and all of Florida.
Beginning in the 20th century, the Muskrat was introduced into parts of Europe and Asia.
In northwestern Europe the Muskrat is considered an invasive species. Populations also exist in Ukraine, Russia, Siberia and adjacent areas of China and Mongolia.
Muskrats are found throughout Kentucky, wherever vegetation-choked waters are found, with the highest population densities in the western third of the state.
Size and Coloration
This medium-sized, semiaquatic rodent measures about 16 to 25 inches in length, can weigh up to four pounds, and has a broad head and stocky body.
Its front feet are adapted for digging and feeding, with long claws. Its much larger back legs are partially webbed for propulsion while swimming.
An upper and lower pair of incisor teeth, which are continually sharpened against one another, are well adapted to gnawing and cutting vegetation. The lips are able to be closed behind the teeth, allowing the Muskrat to gnaw vegetation while underwater.
Its laterally flattened tail, covered with scales, is almost as long as its body and acts as a rudder while swimming.
The eyes are small and its rounded ears, which can be closed off to keep out water, barely rise above the fur. An accomplished swimmer, the Muskrat can stay submerged for several minutes.
The Muskrat has short, thick, two-layered fur to withstand the cold, that is reddish brown to dark brown or black. Adults have a grayish, tan underbelly.
The Muskrat has a small home range and marks its territory with a musky scent. They often share their habitat with beavers.
Muskrats are omnivorous.
They feed on a variety of aquatic plants, and will take clams, snails, crayfish, frogs, and small reptiles. Around pond shorelines they must also feed on grasses and clover.
During floods, they may move from lakes, ponds and wetlands, to feed on submerged field crops like corn and soybeans.
Muskrats prefer bank burrows, which they dig with their front feet.
In flatland waters, where high banks are not always available, they mound up vegetation — grass, roots, and stems — into a pile and dig a tunnel to the interior.
Like most rodents, Muskrats, are prolific breeders.
Females can have two or three litters, of six to eight young, in one year. The gestation period is about three to four weeks.
The kits are born small and hairless, and weigh less than an ounce. At 30 days old they can swim, dive and feed themselves. Kits are fully grown at six weeks and typically stay with their family, unless there is overcrowding.
Muskrats can live about three years in the wild, but are preyed upon by a wide of birds, reptiles, fish and mammals including: fox, coyotes, wolves, lynx, bobcats, bears, eagles, snakes, alligators, large pike and muskie, owls, hawks, and large snapping turtles.
Damage Prevention and Control Methods
Muskrats can become a nuisance when they dig burrows into pond dams, causing water needed for livestock and other agricultural uses, to begin leaking. If severe and numerous, this tunneling can lead to a dam failure.
One way to prevent this damage is to cover the inside of the pond dam face with riprap (rock).
Habitat modifications will also deter muskrats.
Strategies include eliminating aquatic vegetation as a food source, or installing a water level control system that enables a farm pond to be drawn down during the winter months.
Trapping is the most effective way to target individual Muskrats that are causing damage.
Look for their “runs” or trails to den entrances. Conibear-type traps, placed underwater at the entrance to dens and secured with a stake, a hardwood stick or section of river cane stuck in the mud, are an effective trapping strategy.
Generally the muskrat doesn’t cause many problems and keeps a low profile. It is seldom seen, unless you go looking for this fury, semi-aquatic rodent that looks like a big swimming rat.
Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.