Chapel Hill: Opinion

June 17, 2014

Mary Sonis: Muskrat love: An expose

I understand anthropomorphic sentiments in song, but muskrats? And why on Earth would anyone think that the Queen of England wanted to hear a song about muskrat sex?

“Sam says to Susie Honey, would you be my Mrs.? Suzie says yes with her kisses”

This is a line from the song “Muskrat Love” covered by the Captain and Tenille in 1976. It was a peculiar little ballad that flooded the radio waves in its day, the song rising to such popularity that the duo performed it before Queen Elizabeth at a White House dinner in her honor. I understand anthropomorphic sentiments in song, but muskrats? And why on Earth would anyone think that the Queen of England wanted to hear a song about muskrat sex?

The muskrat is a prolific water rodent that can be found in most slow creeks and ponds throughout North America. Romance in early spring is not characterized by candlelight and dancing (and yes, those are actual lyrics) but by the bloodbath that occurs between males fighting for territory and breeding rights.

Muskrats are feisty, and will often fight to the death before breeding begins. Generally, the females are not involved in this fray, but they do wander the pond in breeding season, emitting small squeaks that advertise their availability. Once the female has found a mate, it is a fairly monogamous relationship, and she will often produce as many as three litters in a season. A typical litter will average six kits, primarily cared for by their mother. She raises them in a den that is a loosely built mound of grasses set high to avoid spring floods.

Our Bolin Creek muskrats prefer to build what is known as a bank den. The muskrats use their strong front claws to dig an upward sloping tunnel den that starts at water’s edge, and ascends up into the creek bank. This upward tunneling is designed to prevent den flooding that might occur when creeks rise in spring due to heavy rains.

The diet of a muskrat consists of water vegetation: Bulrushes, Cattails, and grasses, but unlike the exclusively vegan beaver, the muskrat will also consume small turtles, slow moving fish, and crustaceans. Typically, we see Muskrats swimming in creeks carrying huge bundles of grass to their den. These grasses are both a foodstuff and a building material. When food is scarce in winter, the muskrat can eat the inside of its house.

As with all rodents that are heavily predated, the muskrat is required to be prolific. Herons, minks, owls, foxes and coyotes all predate young muskrats, but the muskrat is also endangered by its own kin. The older litter of kits will sometimes kill the younger litter, and mom herself will kill older kits if food is scarce in winter.

My own encounters with muskrats have occurred while I am photographing beavers in the early evening. The beaver travels sedately down the center of Bolin Creek like a great river barge, and next to the quiet giant, swims the hyperactive, tail snaking, circling whirl of energy, ever-worried muskrat.

The little rodent is the pilot boat for the great barge. Beavers tend not to notice dangers. Perhaps their vision is not acute, or perhaps they are just too placid, but the muskrat appoints itself to warn the beaver to any possible danger. It is a disaster for any photographer when a muskrat appears on the scene. Ever alert, the muskrat will thwack its tail on the water, darting in circles of alarm, causing all nearby wildlife to flee. Why does the muskrat ingratiate itself to the beaver? Well, in exchange for this service, the beaver sometimes allows the muskrat to occupy a chamber in the beaver’s solidly built lodge. Muskrats build flimsy grass dens that are easily destroyed by floods, and offer little protection from predators, but the beaver is a master builder.

The beaver does not always follow the warnings of the muskrat, which leads to some amusing encounters. In years past, Bolin Creek had a huge reddish male beaver that was particularly bold. He was not frightened by human presence, and would stubbornly eat grasses on land even when humans stood a mere four feet away. One evening, Big Red was working at creek’s edge on a tree root that jutted into the water. I was lying at the edge of the creek, and the muskrat cracked his tail, and dove in warning. The beaver ignored the muskrat, and continued to loudly gnaw on the root. Muskrat surfaced, whacked its tail, and dove again … no response. Finally the muskrat became so overwrought than it swam in tiny circles around the beaver, whacking its tail and squeaking the entire time. When I left the scene at twilight, the muskrat was still at its post.

In 2011, the muskrat built its bank den directly across from the beaver lodge. You would often see the small muskrat eating next to the beaver as if the presence of the larger rodent offered some sort of protection to the smaller animal. The female of this family raised two litters that season, and she was a fierce protector. She stood on a log in the water, orange teeth on display, staring me down whenever I sat near her den. Muskrat love! Behind her, surrounded by freshly cut grasses, were her young kits. The tiny kits stayed close to the den entrance, but even with vigilance, most muskrats do not live to see their first birthday, den flooding and predation take a heavy toll on the species.

Surprisingly, the muskrat is a fairly beneficial species. They often consume so much pond vegetation, that they keep waterways clear for ducks and other waterfowl. If you have a problem with invasive plants in your pond, the muskrat is an efficient solution; what goats can do for overgrown pastures, the muskrat can do for overgrown ponds.

Next problem to solve … how do I get the song out of my head?

Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reacher her at

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