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Winter Must be Coming as the Muskrats are building their Homes

For quite some time I’ve been fascinated with Swamp Lake, a large swamp off Chief Joseph Highway. Massive Cathedral Cliffs provides not only the backdrop, but all the water from these limestone massifs drain into the low meadows below. Rare plants, birds, grizzly bears and wolves travel through here. But I’ve been interested in the muskrats that live there.

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Muskrats aren’t rare or endangered, but around our mountains this is the only place I’ve seen them. Rumor has it that a long time ago a man was raising muskrats for their fur in the lakes. These days they live in peace as I’ve never seen any trappers in these swamplands.

Muskrats spend most of their time in the water, and can dive for up to fifteen minutes at a time. That’s why it’s hard to spot them. Last spring, every time I passed a pond on my way to the Park, I stopped and watched for a muskrat. Once I saw one swim to a log that lay half onshore, climb on it, only to scent-mark it. Occasionally, yet rarely, I’d catch them swimming. Here’s a lucky photo I took of one swimming near the road.muskrat

In winter I look for their ‘push-ups’ which are the smaller equivalent of beaver lodges. When you start to see the push-ups appearing, you know winter will be here soon. When I passed by the ponds in mid-October, I saw no sign of little houses. But this weekend, here they were.

Distant pushups

Muskrat house

I counted five pushups in this large pond. The swamp is huge, with myriads of convoluted connector corridors so there are others push-ups, yet I’ve found most of them in this particular area. Which brings up some questions. I understand that muskrats are territorial, so how many muskrats might be living in this pond with 5 houses? And why do I see the majority of push-ups here?

These homes will be added to. Here’s one from two winters ago. They don’t last but one season. You can see on the photo below that it is surrounded by ice. The pond freezes, but not completely solid so the muskrats can use these holes to sleep in and store their food.

Close up of a constructed house.  These don't last more than a season usually

Close up of a constructed house. These don’t last more than a season usually

The swamp lies between the forested cliffs and the highway. The old dirt highway runs at the base of the cliffs. Facing north with little sun in winter, the snows are deep there. I like to ski this isolated road in winter where animal tracks abound. Wildlife use it as a secretive corridor. Occasionally there are even tracks across the frozen lake. Wolves, martens, weasels, snowshoe hare, coyote and deer are the most common tracks.

Here’s a great Youtube video from the 1950s in Idaho. It shows the Idaho Fish & Game live trapping muskrats, martens, and beavers to relocate them. The best part of the video is how beaver were reintroduced into remote wilderness area by parachuting them in little boxes.


I spend a day a week working at the Cody Museum of the West in their lab preparing specimens.  We don’t kill any animals for specimens.  They are brought to us having died in various circumstances.  Some hit by cars; others maybe hung up in fences; in a few circumstances they were caught in traps intended for other animals.   Several years ago I was given a muskrat to prepare.  Apparently this poor muskrat was the victim of a man who didn’t know much about wildlife. The muskrat had gotten into his irrigation ditch; the owner saw the muskrat and killed him, thinking he was a dangerous animal.  You might call this ‘the killing reflex’ that some people have towards the unknown.

Muskrat or musquash

Anyways, I was able to handle this interesting animal that we rarely see.  And what stands out is that half their body length is their scaly tail, which is slightly flattened vertically.   Muskrats are not rats at all, but they are in the rodent family.   The ‘musk’ part of their name is appropriate though because they do have a scent gland which they use to mark their territory.   Beavers are our largest rodents, and muskrats would run second.  ‘Musquash’, (or moskwas) a Native American term for muskrats, might be a more appropriate name.  Muskrats play prominent in Indian legends, including many tribes creation myths.  In some tribes, muskrats taught the people how to build lodges and were clan animals; in others they are considered lucky and bestow wealth and hunting success on humans who treat them well.  Muskrats were thought to tell when winter was coming by observing when they built their houses.

Muskrats are aquatic animals, but unlike beavers who spend time on the land cutting trees, muskrats spend all their time in the water, or in burrows they make right at the water’s edge. They are important wetland animals as they eat vegetation, thus keeping the wetlands open and providing suitable habitat for birds.  They also are an important prey species for fox, coyotes, mink, eagles and hawks.  

I decided I wanted to get to know these critters a bit.  Up the road about 15 minutes there’s an area of 700 acres of wetland with a 10 acre swamp.

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

I headed there and explored some shallow ponds of the north side first.  When I didn’t see any muskrat evidence, I began exploring the large and extensive swamp on the south side of the road.  Right away I discovered 4 or 5 ‘homes’ close together, sometimes called ‘push-ups’.

Close up of a constructed house.  These don't last more than a season usually

Close up of a constructed house. These don’t last more than a season usually

Muskrats are not quite the builders like beavers but they can make houses of reeds and grasses which they use in winter.  These houses were in a smaller pond, near the shore which was beginning to freeze up.  In the large and extensive swamp nearby I could only locate 2 or 3 houses and this was perplexing, given how much acreage there was and I’d read how territorial muskrats are.  For some insight I began communicating with Bob Arnebeck, a naturalist back east who has extensively studied his local muskrat and beaver population.  I wondered if, because the large Swamp still had open water, the musquashs had no need to build homes.

Muskrat house near shoreline.  Note frozen water

Muskrat house near shoreline. Note frozen water

Bob thought this might be the case and that Swamp Lake could be too deep for push-ups (at least for now since its not frozen), that muskrats build in shallows and try to get it done before the freeze-up, and that open water in winter would be a great time to actually see the animals. He also thought that muskrats might not be quite as territorial in winter, which would explain why I saw these houses so close to each other.  Bob speculated that the muskrats might even use the numerous push-ups as a kind of ‘shell game’ for predators that explore them in the winter.   In frozen ponds, the animals are rarely seen except for their frozen bubbles under the ice, or where a mink or fox has gone out to explore their homes.

This winter, when it finally really comes, I plan to spend time out in the swamp area and see the stories the tracks in the snow can tell.  I’ll be reporting back, hopefully learning a lot more about these elusive creatures.