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The Muskrat


The muskrat, or musquash, is very much like a beaver on a small

scale, and is so well-known throughout the United States that a

detailed description or illustration will hardly be necessary.

Reduce the size of the beaver to one foot in length, and add a

long flattened tail, instead of the spatula-shaped appendage of

this animal, and we will have a pretty good specimen of a muskrat.

The body has that same thick-set appe
rance, and the gnawing teeth

are very large and powerful. Like the beaver, the muskrat builds

its dome-like huts in ponds or swamps, which it frequents; and

although not as large as those of the beaver they are constructed

in the same manner and of the same materials. Muskrats are mostly

nocturnal in their habits; they are tireless swimmers, and in the

winter travel great distances beneath the ice; all of which

peculiarities are like the beaver. Their food is quite variable,

consisting of grass and roots, oats, corn and other grain, apples

and nuts, and even tomatoes, turnips, carrots, mussels and clams,

whenever these can be found.

The muskrat is a native of all of the Eastern, Western, and Middle

States and also the Southern States, with the exception of Georgia,

Alabama and Florida. They are also found in Canada and the Arctic

regions, and in the North-west. They are hunted and captured as

a means of support to the native tribes of Indians who sell or

trade the furs to Eastern dealers. The fur somewhat resembles that

of the mink in texture, although not as fine, and the color varies

from dark brown above to grey beneath. It is in its best condition

during the winter, especially in March. The animal possesses a

musky smell, from which it takes its name. It is said by many that

the flesh of the animal, when carefully prepared, becomes quite

palatable food.

Their houses are so nearly like those of the beaver that a

second description is scarcely necessary. They are often five or

six feet in height, and the entrances are all under water. Dozens

of these huts may often be seen in ponds and marshes, and sometimes

they exist in such numbers as to give the appearance of a veritable

Esquimaux village. These houses are used only in the winter season.

In general the muskrat lives in burrows, which it excavates in the

banks of ponds or streams, bringing forth its young, from three

to nine in number, in the nest, which it forms at the end of the

tunnel. They are very prolific, producing three litters a year. Like

the beaver, otter and mink, the muskrat can travel long distances

under the ice with only one supply of fresh air, and its method

is certainly very interesting. Before plunging beneath the ice

the animal fills its lungs with air, and when under the water it

swims until it can no longer hold its breath. It then rises up

beneath the ice, empties its lungs, the air remaining in bubbles

beneath the ice. In a short time this air absorbs sufficient oxygen

from the water and ice as to be life-sustaining, when the animal

again inhales it and proceeds on its journey. It is by this means

that the beaver, muskrat and mink are enabled to travel such great

distances beneath unbroken ice, and it is certainly a very novel

and interesting method. Where the ice is thin and transparent these

animals are sometimes captured through the means of this habit.

A heavy stroke on the frozen hut will drive its occupants to the

water, and their course may easily be followed through the ice.

If one of them is tracked, he will presently be seen to stop at

the surface of the water for fresh oxygen, as already described.

The bubbles will soon appear, and if the hunter immediately strikes

with an axe or heavy stick directly on the spot, the submerged

animal will be literally driven away from its breath, and will

of course drown in a very few minutes. A short search will soon

reveal the dead creature, after which he may be taken out through

a hole cut in the ice. Otter and mink are sometimes taken in the

same way. In many localities great numbers of muskrats are also

captured by spearing, either through the ice or through the walls

of their houses. In the latter case, two are often taken at once.

This method is quite uncertain and unreliable, as the walls of

the hut are often so firmly frozen as to defy the thrust of the

hardest steel, and a fruitless attempt will drive the inmates from

their house at once. The spear generally used consists of a single

shaft of steel about eighteen inches in length and half an inch

in diameter, barbed at the point, and is feruled to a

solid handle five feet long. In spearing through the hut the south

side is generally selected, as being more exposed to the heat of

the sun. Great caution is necessary, as the slightest noise will

drive out the inmates. The spear should be thrust in a slanting

direction, a few inches above the surface of the ice. Where many

houses exist it is well to destroy all but one. Into this the whole

tribe will centre, and by successive spearing they may all be captured.

When the spear has been thrust into the house, it must be thus

left until a hole is cut with a hatchet, through which to remove

the game. Spearing through the ice is a better method, but for

general service there is no means of capture more desirable than

by trapping. The steel trap No. 1 or 2 is the size particularly

adapted for the muskrat, and may be set in various ways. The most

common method is to set the trap under two inches of water on the

projecting logs or stones on the border of the streams where the

signs of the animal indicate its recent presence. The trap should

of course be secured by a chain, ringed to a sliding pole, page

145, which will lead the animal into deep water when captured,

and thus effect its speedy death by drowning. In this case bait is

not necessary. If their feeding grounds can be discovered, or if

their tracks indicate any particular spot where they crawl ashore

at the water's edge, at this point a trap may be set with good

success. In this instance it is well also to set it under water,

baiting with a piece of turnip, parsnip, apple, or the like, suspended

a few inches above the pan of the trap. Late in the fall, when

collecting their building material, they often form large beds of

dried grasses and sticks, and a trap set in these beds and covered

with some loose substance, such as grass, chaff, or the like, will

often secure the animal. The trap, in this case should be attached

to a spring-pole, page 145 as the muskrat is a wonderful adept

at self-amputation, when its escape depends upon it.

The trap is sometimes set in the interior of the house, and may

be accomplished by first breaking an opening in the wall, near

the ice, the trap being inserted and set, afterwards covering it

with the loose grass and moss, which is generally abundant in the

interior of these huts. When this is done, the chain should be

secured to a stick on the outside, and the hole repaired. No spring

or sliding-pole is necessary in this method, as the animal when

caught will immediately run for the water, and the weight of the

trap will sink and drown its prisoner.

Scent baits are sometimes used in trapping the muskrat, the

musk taken from the female animal being particularly valued. The

Oils of Rhodium and Amber, page 151 are also successfully employed

by many trappers; a few drops of either in the neighborhood of

the trap, or directly upon it, being sufficient.

Although steel traps are most generally used, there are several

other devices which are equally if not even more desirable. Chief

among these is the barrel trap, commonly and successfully employed

in many parts of New England, where these animals often exist in

such numbers as to render their destruction a matter of necessity.

The above trap consists merely of an old barrel, sunk to its upper

edge in the river bank, and about half filled with water. On the

surface of the water a few light pieces of wood are floated, over

which the bait, consisting of carrot, sweet apple, or turnip, is

placed. A trail is then made by dragging a piece of scented meat

from the barrel in various directions, and a few pieces of the

bait are also strewn along these trails. The muskrats will thus

be led to the barrel, and will be certain to jump in after the

tempting morsels, and their escape is impossible. No less than

a dozen muskrats have been thus caught in a single barrer in one

night, and a few of these traps have been known almost to exterminate

the musquashes in localities where they had previously existed in

such numbers as to become a pestilence to the neighborhood.

A barrel trap constructed on the principle described on page 131

is also equally effective, although rather more complicated in

construction. The Twitch-up is often used, and possesses the advantage

of a trap and spring-pole combined. Box traps, page 103, are also

to be recommended.

The skin of the muskrat may be removed in the same manner as hereinafter

described for the otter, with the exception of the tail. This is

considered the best method. It may also be taken off flat by ripping

from the under jaw to the vent, and peeling around the eyes and

mouth, letting the skin of the legs come off whole, without cutting.

Another common method consists in cutting off the feet, and then

ripping with a knife from the front of the lower jaw down the neck

and belly to a point a little beyond the forelegs. The lips, eyes, and

ears are then carefully skinned, and the hide is stripped backwards

from the body. In the latter method the bow-stretcher, page 274,

is used.