by Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist
The muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) and the beaver are commonly mistaken for one another. What most people don’t know is that the muskrat is in the vole family and is actually more closely related to a rat than a beaver. However, the beaver and the muskrat do share multiple traits and utilize similar habitat. I will give you some characteristics to identify the muskrat, such as breeding and habitat and then I will give some management advice to get rid of these nuisances.
The muskrat and beaver both share a laterally flat tail and aquatic dense fur. But if you look closely, a muskrat only has partially webbed hind feet and no webbing at all on its front feet. The ears of a muskrat are much smaller than those of a beaver, as well as the teeth. These pests can be found throughout the United States except for the Southeast Coastal Plains and Florida (alligators and ginormous snakes). Muskrats are polygamous (having more than one mate) and are able to breed year round in the south. The gestation length is usually ~30 days and litters will have 3-4 kits. Muskrats will have 3-4 litters in one year. In Alabama, most breeding takes place between the months of March and October. The female builds another chamber in the nest and the young will stay there until the next litter is born. Kits are usually weaned ~25 days, so just in time for the next litter to arrive. The population cycles every 6-10 years.
Muskrats prefer slow moving water that is no more than feet deep with ample amounts of aquatic vegetation. They spend most of their time within 15 meters of their house. Their home ranges are usually 60 meters in diameter and they will build 3-4 houses on an acre which will support ~25 muskrats. These nuisances are chiefly herbivorous, eating stalks of vegetation and aquatic plants. They especially desire water lilies, cattails and bulrush. Occasionally they will supplement their diet with small fish and crustaceans. Muskrats will build houses wherever they feel safe from raccoons, foxes, large birds, and even largemouth bass!
These creatures are notoriously known for their burrowing skills. They will destabilize dams by burrowing tunnels and holes. They have been given the nickname “bank rats” because of the damage they can do to pond bank, river bank, etc. Muskrats are elusive little critters, but if you’re honed in on your “conibear trapping skills”, you will be very successful managing this nuisance. The Conibear 110 is the recommended size for this species. FYI, they are fur bearers and sometimes you can make a little change off of the pelts. Other management techniques include managing slow moving water on your property, especially if it is filled with aquatic vegetation. Another management technique is to cover any burrows with hardware cloth. This should prevent muskrats from using the tunnels and thus deterring them from your property.
Managing your property for a game species might invite the company of a nuisance species. In this case, a landowner may be promoting shallow water filled with vegetation as a waterfowl brooding site, but he or she got muskrats instead. As long as management techniques are put in place to control the muskrat species (trapping or hardware cloth), the waterfowl brooding site should do just what it’s supposed to. Look at it as a cost benefit analysis; you can manage for a desired species on your land that will bring you great hunting opportunities, but you also must manage for undesired species on your land that will cause great damage.
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