Last spring I wrote in this column that I was very surprised to see a muskrat “house” in the cedar swamp, because the vernal pools there dry up completely in the summer. Later on in the summer when the ferns and shrubs were in full leaf, I decided the mound was just dead reeds and mud, though it was impossible to get near to check it out. I did not correct my “mistake” and it's just as well. I assumed that muskrats always live in ponds and marshes along water so they can always swim to their food and homes. However, I don't often see signs of them in the Adirondacks, so this is a reason to learn more about these native rodents.
Today when I went back to try to decide for sure what that two foot high pile is about, the pools were full and mostly frozen over with thin ice with a dusting of snow on top. There were tracks coming from near the mystery mound and they seem to be muskrat to judge by the track books. The animal was headed towards the hollow under a big white pine on the mainland. There are many holes through the raised hummocky areas where trees grow in the swamp too, six inches or so wide; one of them had fresh dead plant dumped next to it this spring and I had puzzled about what could have done that.
Though weighing as much as four pounds, muskrats, which secrete “musk” to mark territory and attract mates, have that ratty look, with a hairless tail that is flattened side to side, the better to steer with when swimming. They eat mostly plant matter, especially cattails, but any animal matter, dead or alive, that gets in their way will be devoured too. Those piles of mussel shells you see when canoeing are often left by muskrats feasting under the ice in air pockets, especially along shores.