Muskrats on Ice, 2020

Central New York is blessed with abundant wetland habitats, many of them readily accessible by secondary roads and walking trails. In Winter, when above -average temperatures prevail, muskrats can often be seen foraging and moving about in ice-free water. They use open water to access feeding and resting platforms on adjacent ice after diving for plant food. In marsh habitats, cattail stalks and roots are preferred foods.


Recently, I watched a pair of muskrats harvest cattail stalks and cache them on a feeding platform positioned on ice and partially submerged, woody debris. They alternately fed, groomed and rested at the site for several days.

The open water and visible muskrat activity disappeared at this wetland with the arrival of freezing temperatures and 20 inches of snow. I was forced to complete my story at another wetland, one where spring-fed water kept the ice at bay.

This solitary muskrat foraged aggressively for at least half an hour, repeatedly submersing it’s head in the shallow pool of swamp water to remove subsurface plant material. It would surface with a mouthful, eat, then go down again for more.

In about a month, males will be chasing females and pairs will be defending their breeding territories: muskrat breeding season! I’m hoping for a follow-up story.

Photos by NB Hunter (January and February, 2020). All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Muskrats on Ice, 2020

  1. Looking forward to a follow up. Your muskrats look a bit like our beavers… except, of course, for the tail and then there’s the matter of that snow and ice.

    • There are beaver in the same wetlands but I haven’t seen them recently. They’re not as abundant, visible or tolerant of people as are muskrats. And, they are prized by trappers when fur prices are good.

    • It’s hard for me to comprehend how aquatic mammals like beavers, mink and muskrats can call ice water home. But, they’re well adapted to this environment and thrive in it. Muskrats have webbing on their hind feet and a flattened tail to aid in swimming. Their winter fur is dense, 2-layered, and water resistant. Huts and bank dens allow for secure, underwater entrance and warm, dry shelter above water level. Thanks for the visit!

      • It is remarkable how well-adapted they are to pretty extreme conditions, and thanks for the additional information.
        Are they considered to be an agricultural pest in your region? I have just read an article on extermination methods, which in addition to trapping (using for example leg-hold traps that lead to death by drowning) another suggested method is burning or removing wetland vegetation! I wonder if wetlands are afforded any kind of formal protection, or only in designated zones?

      • Just returned from a visit to the marsh and observation of one, then two, of these same muskrats. As usual, I learned something. One was sitting next to a hole in the ice, fluffy and dry. Another appeared from under the ice and climbed out of the water, soaked. My first shot of wet and dry side by side. Amazingly, the wet one was started to dry out (hair fluffing) within 5 minutes (as “water off a duck’s back”)! Yes, muskrats can wreak havoc in small, dammed ponds and reservoirs because they are apt to burrow into the dam. Local trappers and wildlife control businesses keep them under control. We also have healthy populations of canids (coyotes and foxes) and mink, all of which prey on muskrats. Our larger wetlands are protected (Federal and State) but smaller areas are vulnerable to greed and stupidity. Destruction of habitat should never, ever be an option.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it. This time of year can be difficult, especially when I venture afield and away from the feeders. It was minus twelve last night and I still need snowshoes in some places. Muskrats tend to save the day. If I can find open water, odds are there will be visible muskrats (unless the trappers see them first). Change is in the air though. Deer and turkeys are getting hungry and searching for bare ground and what remains of palatable food. A week of temps above freezing will really liven things up. I’m currently watching a flock of turkey gobblers digging through crusted snow in search of waste grain in the corn stubble. Hope to post the results soon. Hope all is well.

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