This summer, visitors to Washington Park may catch themselves humming a truly awful ‘70s pop hit called “Muskrat Love.” Why? Because more of these semi-aquatic rodents have been spotted in and around Grasmere Lake. And that may be a very good sign.
Once plentiful in North American marshes, muskrat populations have declined over the past few decades. Scientists are beginning to pay attention. The National Institutes of Health has tagged muskrats as a sentinel species for environmental contamination, and studies are now underway to discover exactly what these furry creatures are telling us about our wetlands.
Locally, muskrats are paddling around Grasmere Lake with enthusiasm. Cleaner water and the lake’s relatively new wetland areas are probably a big draw. This rotund rodent eats one-third of its body weight every day in cattails, sedge and water weeds.
With long whiskers, buckteeth and amiable gaze, the roly-poly muskrat resembles an absent-minded professor on a swim. The animals are not closely related to rats, despite their name. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife website describes the muskrat as “an overgrown, semi-aquatic vole.” They generally weigh two to four pounds and measure about two feet long, almost half of which is tail. Early English colonists knew them as “mushquash,” probably derived from the Algonquin Indian name “muscascus,” which refers to the reddish tint in their brown fur. Sources seem a bit confused as to whether the “musk” in muskrat was derived from their Indian name or from the musk glands they use to mark their swampy territory.
In 19th-century America, trappers sought muskrats for their soft, thick, water-repellent fur. Fancy restaurants along the Eastern seaboard served muskrat meat under the pseudonym “marsh hare,” according to one New Hampshire conservationist. Today, seasonal muskrat dinners are still popular in southern New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland — at least with people who like meat described by some as “dark, fishy and bony.”
The creatures were equally important to Native American tribes. Several tribal creation myths credit the muskrat with diving deeper into the primordial floodwaters than any other animal, where it retrieved enough mud to construct a new world for mankind.
Muskrats are well-equipped for such an important mission. Although awkward on land, they excel in water. They can stay under the surface for 15 minutes or more, propelled along swiftly by large hind legs with partially webbed paws. Their long, scaly tails, vertically flattened, act like rudders.
Underwater, muskrats stay busy eating plants, which helps keep waterways clear. Less helpfully, however, they often burrow into the banks of lakes and streams with their long front claws, damaging the shoreline and infuriating property owners. But from a muskrat’s point of view, a submerged burrow entrance is the best kind of home security system. Not only does it help them evade such predators as owls, coyotes and enthusiasts for seasonal muskrat dinners, it also provides a safe place to raise their little ones.
And usually there are lots of little ones to raise. While The Captain and Tennille’s hit “Muskrat Love” was voted one of the 10 worst songs of the ‘70s by Rolling Stone readers, its title is right on the mark. Muskrats are both loyal and prolific mates, producing two to five litters annually, with an average of six kits each time.
So keep an eye on Grasmere Lake this fall. Muskrats may be multiplying — because they have a lot of love to give.
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