Sunday, October 13, 2013

Summer 2013: Muskrats

Trapping season starts in November and the local media often celebrates the men and boys who go out into the swamps and riversides to kill beavers, otters and muskrats.

Last fall, 2012, the big news was a rise in the price paid for muskrat pelts. When I started noticing pelt prices 15 years ago, a muskrat pelt sold at auction for under a dollar. Here is a photo of muskrat before prices started climbing.

At the beginning of this trapping season, a good pelt might get over $10 at auction. That rated this headline in the Watertown Daily Times: Muskrat Love: North Country Trappers Step Up Their Game As Prices for Pelts Rise. Here is a photo of a muskrat after the value of its fur increased 10 fold.

A little joke of mine. The muskrat hasn't changed. As articles about trapping go this was better than most, short on the romance and long on the business side and the fostering concern of the state wildlife biologists: 

“Last Sunday, Mr. Devan, a retired state DEC wildlife biologist, had 375 muskrat pelts bagged for Mr. Edwards. They were turned inside out, with the skins facing out, the way fur buyers prefer to purchase muskrat pelts, according to Mr. Edwards.”

Mr. Edwards is the shipping agent for the Fur Harvesters March auction in Seattle where, he explained, the Chinese would buy most of the pelts. The Chinese trim and dye the fur, and for $1,783.00, voila:

DEC doesn't stand for "Direct Exports to China." Chinese demand means nothing, according to the DEC. Keep an eye on gasoline prices. The article continues:

“Trapping tends to self-regulate for a lot of species,” Mr. MacDuff , the [not retired] DEC biologist, said. After reviewing some survey results done by trappers, Mr. MacDuff said statewide harvest of muskrats swing between 84,000 and 214,000. No breakdown is done by region. “It’s often weather-dictated or, often, things like fuel prices will fall into it,” Mr. MacDuff said.

In the United States wildlife biologists rarely study the affects of trapping or effectiveness of trapping as a method to “regulate“ “a lot of species.” Less said the better because that keeps the politically powerful sportsman’s lobby happy and the meager fees from trapping licenses help fund the state conservation agencies.

Several years ago, the price for muskrat pelts jumped to almost $7. I was told by the local beaver trapper that thanks to that new muskrat traps were all over the wetland below our land. For the next few years after that muskrats were scarce.

Muskrat traps are relatively small and cheap. This Duke Coil costs $4.75:

Trapping one muskrat pays for two traps. I began fearing a muskratless Summer of 2013, which was a gloomy thought.

In the fall of 2012, my wife and I had to be away during the early part of trapping season to care for her father so we missed getting a feel for how many muskrats had been killed. We didn’t get back home until early February. 

We were soon reminded of the peril muskrats faced. As soon as the ice melted along the St. Lawrence River, perhaps the most beautiful time along the river,

an outboard motor boat propelled two snugly clad guys from island to island and dock to dock. Once I figured out their schedule, I happened to be on our dock one sunny morning. 

They claimed they didn’t need permission to set traps in anybody’s dock or boathouse but would ask for it if they found out that person was around. They claimed to be experienced trappers who do it every year, but it was the first time I ever saw them and their traps looked new. As for the two muskrats in our cove, they said they “took” one. Perhaps, but we haven’t seen the other since. The trappers stopped visiting our cove.

At the end of March a 14 year old kid put traps in the big pond on our land, which we got him to remove before our beaver and pair of muskrats were killed. But he had permission to trap on our neighbor’s land and in the huge wetland below us.

At the end of trapping season, April 7, we found the tails and other remains of three beavers on the dirt road that flanks our land. 

The unfortunate result of high pelt prices for muskrats is that many trappers, especially the rookies, go gung-ho for beavers and otters, too. 

Fortunately, 14 year old trappers aren’t that good. The beaver in my pond that I saved from the traps went down into the huge wetland for the last week of trapping season, but it returned and repaired the dam that kept the pond’s water level high. The two muskrats who spent the winter in the pond were soon out and about as the ice melted.

In the late spring and early summer muskrats collect and eat grasses. It was a pleasant pastime, watching them carry bouquets of greens to their burrow in the east end of the dam.

The time elapsed between the first and second load in the video was 5 minutes.
Then I got one of my best videos of a muskrat eating.



This was a promising beginning to muskrat watching season, but after years of trying I have decided that it is impossible to keep track muskrats. The much larger beaver not only keeps fairly regular hours, it is easy to see the next morning what they ate the night before. If I knew every blade of grass and every weed in and around the pond, I still probably wouldn't get a general idea of what muskrats are doing. 

In June and early July, I often saw a foraging muskrat when I paused on my morning walk to sit by the pond. Then sightings became rare: briefly in the afternoon on July 29, a fleeting glimpse as it got dark on August 19. Strange. Where were their babies?

I knew the muskrats were still there only by the muddy bottom outside their burrows.

I reasoned that the muskrats might be avoiding the heat of the day -- in August pond water gets warm, so I made a point of checking the pond as it got dark, but I still didn't see them.

Last year I frequently saw muskrat kits in the early evening. Kits are always skittish and I noticed that whenever a shiner jumped out of the water near them, the muskrats made a furious dive. Finally on August 22, 2012, I got video of that.

The photos below lifted from the video reveals the split-second life of muskrats, who, by the way, have no interest in eating shiners (nor do shiners eat them).

Summer ended and I figured that despite surviving the trappers and a promising June, the muskrats fizzled and didn't have any kits.

Then on the afternoon of September 25 I was dozing in my chair enjoying the warm sun and the damselflies on my knee

When I heard a splash along the far shore of the pond. I looked up and the pond was full of muskrats. I saw two going this way

and two going that way

As the video below shows, they had no interest in eating

The muskrats separated and seemed to stand guard at different points in the pond. For example one was beside the inlet creek

and one was almost in front of me.

Another was probably at the dam and I saw another on the far shore near where I heard the first splash. Finally a muskrat swam to all the burrows around the pond. The video below shows it checking out one of the oldest of the several around the pond.

I watched the muskrats stay on guard for about a half hour. Two of the larger did momentarily scratch themselves. The smaller ones were ever vigilant until something spooked them (me for example) and they dived with a wild twitch. 

I've seen this twice before. Once I saw the mink which caused the alarm in the pond. That was in a much smaller pond and the vigilance of the muskrats was not as well choreographed.

Mink are the principal predators of muskrats and from what I've seen muskrats defend themselves by facing the mink and trying to chase it away. Minks prefer attacking from the rear. Here are two videos showing that:

Back to 2013: as the threat of a mink attack receded (I never saw a mink but there were too many muskrats sniffing the air for it to be a drill) the muskrats began moving around the pond each seeming to go to check burrows themselves, at least with a sniff.

Trapping season is around the corner again. I am sure the DEC wildlife biologists, trappers, fur auction scouts and Chinese furriers know all anyone needs to know about muskrats. The more I watch them the less I know. They are incredible little animals 


  1. Quite interesting. Have a pond with 2-3 foot banks. Lots of holes 4-6 inches diameter quite far, 10-15 feet from pond. Could these be cave-ins or entrances to muskrat burrows?

  2. We saw a muskrat carrying a kit in her mouth alongside a very popular camping site near Helena, Montana. Was she moving the nest to save her baby?