13            Muskrat

                            FIBER ZIBETHICUS.--Linn.
                              [Ondatra Zibethicus]

                                   [Musk rat]

                          PLATE XIII.--OLD, and YOUNG.

     F. supra, rufo-fuscus; subtus cinereus; Leporem sylvaticum magnitudine sub

     General colour, reddish-brown above, cinereous beneath; about the size of
the American gray rabbit.


     MUSSASCUS, Smith's Virginia, 1626.  (Pinkerton's Collection of Voyages and
       Travels, vol. xiii., p. 31.)
     RAT MUSQUE, Sagard Theodat, Canada, p. 771.
     CASTOR ZIBETHICUS, Linn. Syst. Nat., xii. ed., vol. 1, p. 79.
     L'ONDATRA, Button, Tom 10, p. 1.
     MUSKRAT, Lawson, Carolina, p, 120.
     MUSK BEAVER, Pennant, Arc. Zool., vol. i., p. 106.
     MUSQUASH, Hearne, Journey, p. 379.
     MUS ZIBETHICUS, Linn., Gmel., vol. i., p. 125.
     FIBER ZIBETHICUS, Sabine, Franklin's Journey, p. 659.
     MUSK RAT, Godman's Nat. Hist., p. 58.
     ONDATHRA, Huron Indians.
     MUSQUASH, WATSUSS, or WACHUSK; the animal that sits on the ice in a round
       form.  Cree Indians, (Richardson.)


     Body, of a nearly cylindrical shape, resembling that of the Norway rat.
Head, short; neck, very short, and indistinct; legs, short; thighs hid in the
body.  Tail, two-thirds the length of the body, compressed, convex on the sides,
thickest in the middle, tapering to an acute point at the extremity; covered
with small scales, which are visible through the thinly scattered hairs.
Incisors, large; upper ones, a little rounded anteriorly without grooves,
truncated on the cutting edge; lower ones, a little the longest; nose, thick,
and obtuse; whiskers, moderate in length, seldom reaching beyond the ear; eyes,
small, and lateral, nearly concealed in the fur; ears, short, oblong, covered
with hair, and hidden by the fur.
     On the fore-legs, the wrist and fingers only are visible beyond the body,
they are covered with a short shining coat of hair.
     The thumb has a conspicuous palm, and is armed with a nail, as long as the
adjoining finger nails.  Hind-legs, as short as the fore-legs, so that the body
when the animal is walking touches the ground.
     The hind-feet are turned obliquely inwards, and at first sight remind us of
the foot of a duck.  The two middle toes may be called semi-palmated, and there
is also a short web between the third and fourth toes.  The margins of the
soles, and toes, are furnished with an even row of rigid hairs, curving inwards;
under-surface of feet, naked; claws, conical, and slightly arched.
     The whole body is clothed with a short, downy, fur, intermixed with longer
and coarser hairs.  In many particulars the skin resembles that of the beaver,
although the fur is far less compact, downy and lustrous.


     Fur, on the upper parts a third longer than beneath; from the roots to near
the extremities, bluish-gray, or lead-colour, tipped with brown; on the under
surface it is a little lighter in colour, and the hairs are tipped with
brownish-gray.  This species, when viewed from above, appears of a general
dark-brown colour, with a reddish tint visible on the neck, sides, and legs;
chin, throat, and under-surface, grayish-ash; tail, dark-brown.  Incisors,
yellow; nails, white.  The colour of this animal so much resembles that of the
muddy banks on which it is frequently seated, that we have often, when looking
at one from a little distance, mistaken it for a lump or clod of earth, until it



     Length of head and body .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . 15
     Length of tail .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . 10
     From heel to longest nail  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  3
     Height of ear  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .    1/2


     Reader!  If you are a native of, or have sojourned in any portion, almost,
of our continent, and have interested yourself in observing the "beasts of the
field" in our woods or along our streams, to the slightest degree, you have
probably often seen the Musk-Rat; or should you have been confined to the busy
marts of commerce, in our large cities, you may even there have seen his skin,
and thought it a beautiful fur.  It is, in fact, when the animal is killed in
good season, superior to very many other materials for making beaver (?) hats,
as well as for other purposes, and thousands of Musk-Rat skins are annually used
in the United States, while still greater numbers are shipped to Europe,
principally to Great Britain.
     This species is nocturnal, and consequently its manners and customs cannot
be correctly ascertained from the occasional glimpses of it which we obtain by
day-light, as it may chance to pass rapidly through the water seeking to conceal
itself under the root of some large-tree projecting into the deep pool, or as it
dives suddenly to the mouth of its hole under the shelter of the steep or
over-hanging bank of the stream, into which it hastily retires when our
appearance has alarmed it.
     We have often, in the Northern part of the State of New-York, or on the
Schuylkill, or near Frankford, in Pennsylvania, gone during the day to look for
and observe these animals, to places where we knew they abounded; but although
we might patiently wait for hours, with book in hand to beguile the time, we
could rarely see one, and should one appear, it was only for an instant.  But at
such places, so soon as the last rays of the setting sun have ceased to play
upon the smooth water, and when the last bright sparkling tints he has thrown as
a "farewell till to-morrow," upon rock tree and floweret, are succeeded by the
deep quiet gray of twilight; the placid surface of the stream is agitated in
every direction, many a living creature emerges from its diurnal retreat and may
be observed in full activity above or beneath the Water, and first to appear is
the Musk-Rat--which may perchance dart out from underneath the very old stump on
which we have been so patiently seated!  We are perhaps startled by an
unexpected noise and plash--and two seconds after, up comes the head of the
animal to the surface, at least five yards off--and, if we happen not to be
observed, we may look on, and see him swimming merrily with his companions, or
seeking his "breakfast," for his day has just begun!
     When we were about seventeen years of age, we resided on our farm,
"Mill-Grove," situated at the confluence of the Schuylkill river and the
Perkioming creek.
     On the latter, above a mill-dam which then existed, there was an island
divided from the shore on the southerly side by a small channel not more than
twenty-five or thirty feet in width, in which we had occasionally observed
Musk-Rats swimming.  Having a friend at our house for a few weeks, we one
evening persuaded him to accompany us to this spot, with the view of procuring a
few of these animals.  Accordingly, after due preparation we made our way toward
the creek.  We approached the bank quietly, and seated ourselves on some
moss-covered stones without disturbing the silence of the night, the only
interruption to which was the gentle ripple of the pure stream, which, united
with the broader Schuylkill, still flows onward, and conveys to the now great
city of Philadelphia, that inestimable treasure pure water.  Here then we
waited, long and patiently--so long, that our companion became restless, said
that he would like to smoke a cigar, and accordingly lighted a "fragrant
Havana."  We remained watching, but saw no Musk-Rats that evening, as these
cunning animals no doubt observed the light at the end of my friend's cigar.  We
have since that time known many a sportsman lose a shot at a fine buck, by
indulging in this relaxation, while at a "stand," as it is generally termed.  To
return to our Musk-Rats, we went home disappointed, but on the next evening
proceeded to the same spot, and in less than an hour shot three, which we
secured.  Next day we made a drawing of one of them, which was afterwards lost.
We have now in our possession only two drawings of quadrupeds made by us at this
early period; one of which represents the American otter, and the other a mink.
They were drawn with coloured chalks and crayons, and both are now quite rubbed
and soiled, like ourselves having suffered somewhat from the hand of time, and
the jostling we have encountered.
     We have sometimes, when examining or describing one of our well-known
animals, allowed ourselves to fall into a train of thought as we turned over the
pages of some early writer, which carried us back to the period of the discovery
of our country, or still earlier explorations of wild and unknown regions.  We
have endeavoured to picture to ourselves the curiosity eagerly indulged, the
gratified hopes, and the various other feelings that must have filled the minds
of the adventurous voyagers that first landed on AMERICA'S forest-margined
coast.  What were their impressions on seeing the strange objects that met their
eyes in all directions?  What thought they of the inhabitants they met with?
And what were their ideas on seeing birds and quadrupeds hitherto unheard of and
unknown?  The most indifferent or phlegmatic temperament must have been aroused,
and the traveller, whatever his profession--whether soldier, sailor, trader, or
adventurer--at such times, doubtless, would pause for awhile, conceal himself,
and noiselessly observe the strange movements of the wonderful creature he has
just for the first time seen--for all the Creator's works are wonderful--and it
is only because we behold many of them continually, that we finally cease to
marvel at the conformation of the most common domesticated species.
     Something in this way were our reflections directed while turning over the
pages of Captain JOHN SMITH, whose life was preserved by the fair and heroic
POCAHONTAS.  This gallant soldier was, as well as we can learn, the first person
who gave any account of the Musk-Rat.  His "General History of Virginia, New
England, and the Summer Isles," was published in London, in 1624, folio; he
styles himself, "sometime Governor in those Countries, and Admiral of New
     SMITH, in this account of Virginia, &c., says of this animal--"A Mussascus
is a beast of the form and nature of our water-rat, but many of them smell
exceedingly strong of musk."
     LA HONTAN, in a letter dated Boucherville, May, 1687, (see Trav. in
Canada,) says--"In the same place we killed some Musk-Rats, or a sort of animals
which resemble a rat in their shape, and are as big as a rabbit.  The skins of
these rats are very much valued, as differing but little from those of beavers."
He goes on to describe the manner in which the "strong and sweet smell" of musk
is produced; in which he so much betrays his ignorance of natural history, that
we will not expose the vulgar error by repeating it here.  But if one Frenchman
of the 17th century committed some errors in relating the habits of this
species, another, early in the 18th, (1725,) made ample amends, by giving us a
scientific description of its form, internal structure, and habits, that would
do credit to the most careful investigator of the present day.  This
accomplished naturalist was Mons.  SARRASIN, King's Physician at Quebec, and
correspondent of the French Academy; in honour of whom LINNAEUS named the genus
Sarrasenia.  He dissected a number of Musk-Rats, described the animal, gave an
account of the "follicles which contain the perfume," and noted its habits.
     To this intelligent physician, BUFFON was principally indebted for, the
information which enabled him to draw up his article on the Canadian Musk-Rat.
     In 1789, KALM, (Beschreibung der Reise nach dem Noerdlichen America,) gives
a very correct account of the characteristics and habits of this species.
     Musk-Rats are lively playful animals when in their proper element the
water, and many of them may be occasionally seen disporting on a calm night in
some mill-pond or deep sequestered pool, crossing and recrossing in every
direction leaving long ripples in the water behind them, whilst others stand for
a few moments on little knolls or tufts of grass, or on stones or logs, on which
they can get footing above the water, or on the banks of the pond, and then
plunge one after another into the water; at times, one is seen lying perfectly
still on the surface of the pond or stream, with its body widely spread out, and
as flat as it can be.  Suddenly it gives the water a smart flap with its tail,
somewhat in the manner of the beaver, and disappears beneath the surface
instantaneously--going down head foremost--and reminding one of the quickness
and ease with which some species of ducks and grebes dive when shot at.  At the
distance of ten or twenty yards, the Musk-Rat comes to the surface again, and
perhaps joins its companions in their sports; at the same time others are
feeding on the grassy banks, dragging off the roots of various kinds of plants,
or digging underneath the edge of the bank.  These animals thus seem to form a
little community of social playful creatures, who only require to be unmolested
in order to be happy.  Should you fire off a fowling-piece whilst the Musk-Rats
are thus occupied, a terrible fright and dispersion ensues--dozens dive at the
flash of the gun, or disappear in their holes; and although in the day-time,
when they see imperfectly, they may be shot whilst swimming, it is exceedingly
difficult to kill one at night.  In order to insure success the gunner must be
concealed, so that the animal cannot see the flash, when he fires even with a
percussion lock.
     The burrows and houses of this species are not constructed on such
admirable architectural principles as those of the beaver, but are,
nevertheless, curious, and well-adapted for the residence of the animal.  Having
enjoyed opportunities of examining them in several portions of the Northern
States, and having been present when hundreds of Musk-Rats were taken, either by
digging them out or catching them in traps, we will endeavour to describe their
nests, and the manner in which the hunters generally proceed in order to procure
the animals that are in them.
     In different localities the Musk-Rat has very opposite modes of
constructing its winter domicil.  Where there are overhanging clayey or loamy
banks along the stream or pond, they form a winter retreat in the side of the
bank, with openings under the water, and their galleries run sometimes to the
distance of fifteen or twenty yards from the shore, inclining upward, so as to
be above the influence of the high waters on the breaking up of the ice in
spring, or during freshets.  There are usually three or four entrances from
under the water, which all, however, unite at a point some distance from the
water, and sufficiently high to be secure from inundation, where there is a
pretty large excavation.  In this "central hall" we have seen nests that would
fill a bushel basket.  They were composed of decayed plants and grasses,
principally sedge, (Carex,) the leaves of the arrow-head, (Sagittaria,) and the
pond-lily, (Nymphaea.)  They always contained several dried sticks, some of them
more than a foot in length; these were sometimes arranged along the sides, but
more frequently on the top of the nests.  From these nests there are several
galleries extending still farther from the shore; into the latter the animals
retreat, when, after having been prevented from returning to the water, by
stopping the entrances, they are disturbed in their chamber.  Sometimes we have
found their subterranean strongholds leading into others by transverse
galleries.  These were never so far beneath the surface as those of the fox,
marmot, or skunk.  On passing near the burrows of the Musk-Rat, there is always
sufficient evidence of their existence in the vicinity: the excrement of the
animal, resembling that of the Norway rat, being deposited around, and paths
that they have made through the rushes and aquatic plants, that grow in thick
profusion in the immediate neighbourhood, being easily traced; but it is not so
easy to discover the entrances.  The latter are always under the water, and
usually where it is deepest near the shore.  When the Musk-Rat is about to
retire to its hole, it swims to within a few feet of the shore, and then dives
suddenly and enters it.  If you are standing on the bank directly above the
mouth of the hole, the rumbling noise under your feet, if you listen
attentively, will inform you that it has entered its burrow.  It seldom,
however, immediately retreats far into its hole, but has small excavations and
resting-places on the dry ground a little beyond the reach of the water.
     There are occasionally very differently constructed nests of the Musk-Rat;
we have seen some of them, in the town of Clinton Dutchess county, and along the
margins of swamps in the vicinity of Lake Champlain, in the State of New-York;
and others in several localities in Canada.  A pond supplied chiefly if not
entirely by springs and surrounded by low and marshy ground, is preferred by the
Musk-Rats; they seem to be aware that the spring-water it contains, probably
will not be solidly frozen, and there they prepare to pass the winter.  Such a
place, as you may well imagine, cannot without great difficulty be approached
until its boggy and treacherous foundation has been congealed by the hard frosts
and the water is frozen over; before this time the Musk-Rats collect coarse
grasses and mud, with which, together with sticks, twigs, leaves, and any thing
in the vicinity that will serve their purpose, they raise their little houses
from two to four feet above the water the entrance being always from below.  We
have frequently opened these nests and found in the centre a dry comfortable bed
of grass, sufficiently large to accommodate several of them.  When the ponds are
frozen over, and a slight fall of snow covers the ground, these edifices
resemble small hay-cocks.  There is another peculiarity that, it appears to us,
indicates a greater degree of intelligence in the Musk-Rat than we are usually
disposed to award to it.  The animal seems to know that the ice will cover the
pond in winter, and that if it has no places to which it can resort to breathe,
it will be suffocated.  Hence you here and there see what are called breathing
places.  These are covered over with mud on the sides, with some loose grass in
the centre to preserve them from being too easily frozen over.  We have
occasionally seen these winter-huts of the Musk-Rat, in the vicinity of their
snug summer retreats in some neighbouring river's bank, and have sometimes been
half inclined to suppose, that for some cause or other they gave a preference to
this kind of residence.  We are not, however, aware that these nests are made
use of by the Musk-Rat in spring for the purpose of rearing its young.  We
believe these animals always for that purpose resort to holes in the sides of
ponds, sluggish streams, or dykes.
     In such situations we have frequently observed the young, which when they
first make their appearance are seen emerging from a side gallery leading to the
surface, so that they are not of necessity obliged to "take a dive" until they
have had a little acquaintance with the liquid element.  They are at this time
very gentle, and we have on several occasions taken them up with the hand
without their making any violent struggles to escape, or attempts to punish us
with their teeth.
     The fur of this species was formerly a valuable article of commerce, and is
still in some demand.  But since so many new inventions are supplying the public
with cheap hats, and the Nutria skin has been extensively introduced from South
America, the Musk-Rat is less sought after, and in some of our most thickly
populated districts has greatly increased in numbers.  The country-people,
however, continue to destroy it to prevent its becoming so numerous as to cause
loss, by making holes in the mill-dams, embankments, or ditches, that happen to
be inhabited by it, and allowing the water to flow through, when frequently much
mischief results.  The Musk-Rat has little of the cunning of the fox, the
beaver, or even the common Norway rat, and may be easily taken in almost any
kind of trap; and although it is very prolific, it might by proper attention be
so thinned off in a single year as to cease to be a nuisance.  A dozen common
rat-traps carefully and judiciously attended to would go far toward reducing if
not exterminating these pests in a small neighbourhood, in the course of one or
two seasons.  The traps should be set in shallow water near the edge of the
stream or pool, or on a log sunk about an inch under the water, with a cord ten
or twelve feet long so as to prevent the animals from running away with the
traps when they have been caught; one or two slices of parsnips or sweet apples
may be stuck upon small twigs so that they will hang about six inches above the
traps.  The animal, having evidently a good nose, whilst swimming at some little
distance from the traps when thus set, suddenly turns as it scents the bait,
swims along the shore toward it, and reaching up to seize it, is caught by the
foot, and being of course greatly alarmed, jerks the trap off the log or pulls
it into the water, where the weight of the trap soon drowns it.  The Musk-Rat
also readily enters and is easily taken in a box-trap, but it ought to be lined
with tin or sheet iron, for its formidable incisors otherwise enable the animal
to make its escape by gnawing a hole in the box.  We have sometimes seen it
taken between two boards in what is called a figure of 4 trap, with a heavy
weight on the upper board.
     The following mode of hunting the Musk-Rat frequently affords a
considerable degree of amusement.  A party is made up to go:  a spade, an axe,
and a hoe, are carried along, and a spear, or in lieu of it, a pitchfork; in
addition to these, a hoop-net is sometimes wanted, but what is most important,
and regarded as a sine qua non, is a dog accustomed to hunting these aquatic
animals.  The season which promises most success in this way of hunting them is
the autumn, before the heavy rains have swelled the waters.  The party go to
some sluggish stream that winds through a meadow or across a flat country where
the banks are not so high as to render the "digging" that has to be done too
laborious.  The little islands which in such places rise but a few feet above
the water, are sometimes perforated by the Musk-Rats, and their holes and
excavations undermine them in a great degree, so that it is difficult to find
and stop all the mouths of these galleries, and thereby render success tolerably
certain.  But as these are the very places in which the greatest number of these
animals are to be found, it is quite important to "invest" them.  It is
necessary to be very cautious in digging down along the banks of these islets,
in order to reach and stop up the holes, and it usually happens that
notwithstanding every precaution is taken, the animals find some way to escape.
No sooner is their ancient domicil disturbed, than they issue forth from their
holes under the water, to seek some safer retreat along the banks of the
main-land; one after another is seen, alternately rising and diving, and making
for the shore.  If it is ascertained that it is not possible to prevent their
escape, the hunters resolve to drive them all from the little islet.  A hole is
dug in the centre of the place, and the dog encouraged to go in; the few
remaining Musk-Rats, at this last and worst alarm, scamper out of the burrows
with all haste, and the island is left in possession of the allied forces.  All
this time the hunters have been sharply looking out to observe to what spot the
greatest number of Musk-Rats have retired.  They have marked the places in front
of which they were seen to dive, well knowing that they are closely concealed in
some of the holes along the bank.  The animals have now retreated far up into
their burrows, and are not very apt to make for the water.  The ground is struck
with a stick in different places, and where a hollow sound is heard, the hunters
know there is an excavation, and at once dig down to it. In this way several
holes are found, and are successively stopped to prevent the return of the
Musk-Rats to the water.  The dinging is then continued till the hunters reach
the nest, which being laid open, is entered by the dog, in order that the
sagacious animal may ascertain the gallery into which the Musk-Rats have
retired, as a last resort.  The digging is seldom fatiguing, as the holes run
very near the surface.  A net to catch them is now placed at the hole, or in
lieu of it, a man stands with a spear touching the mouth of it, placing his foot
immediately behind the spear.  As the Rat attempts to rush out, the weapon is
driven into its neck.  Thus these animals are killed one after another until the
whole colony is destroyed; sometimes they are knocked on the head with a club,
instead of being speared.  In some places we have seen more than a dozen killed
in one hole, and we have known upwards of fifty to be taken in this manner in a
single day.
     When the Musk-Rats have gone to their winter huts among the marshes, there
is another way of procuring them.  The party go to the marshes, when the ice is
sufficiently strong to support a man.  They proceed cautiously to their nests
(the manner of building which we have already described,) where the Rats are
snugly ensconsed in their warm beds, within seven or eight inches of the top.  A
spear with four prongs, about as long as those of a pitch-fork, is used upon
the, occasion.  One of the men strikes the spear into the nest with all the
force he is capable of exerting, and if he understands his business and knows
where to strike, he, is almost sure to pin one, if not two or three, of the
animals to the earth with one blow.  Another hunter stands by with an axe to
demolish the little mud habitation, and aid in securing the Musk-Rats which have
been speared by his companion.  It often occurs that the water under the ice is
shallow and the ice transparent, in which case the animals may be seen making
their way through the water, almost touching the ice, and we have frequently
seen them stunned by a blow with the axe on the ice above them, (in the manner
in which pike and other fish are sometimes killed in our rivers when they are
frozen over;) a hole is then cut in the ice, and they are secured without
difficulty.  The houses of the Musk-Rats which have been broken up by the
hunters are soon restored, the repairs commence the following night, and are
usually completed by morning!
     In regard to the food of the Musk-Rat, our experience induces us to
believe, that like its congener, the house-rat, it is omnivorous.  In 1813, we
obtained two of this species when very young for the purpose of domesticating
them, in order that we might study their habits.  They became so perfectly
gentle that they came at our call, and were frequently carried to an artificial
fish-pond near the house, and after swimming about for an hour or two, they
would go into their cage, which was left for them at the water's edge.  A few
years ago, we received from LEE ALLISON, Esq., residing at Aikin, South
Carolina, one of this species in a box lined with tin.  We have thus had
opportunities of ascertaining the kind of food to which they gave the
preference.  We would, however, remark, that the food taken by an animal in
confinement is no positive evidence of what it would prefer when left to its
free choice in the meadows, the brooks, and the fields it inhabits in a state of
nature.  Their food in summer consists chiefly of grasses, roots, and
vegetables.  We have often watched them early in the morning, eating the young
grass of the meadows; they seemed very fond, especially of the timothy, (Phleum
pratense,) and red-top, (Agrostis;) indeed, the few bunches of clover and other
kinds of grass remaining in their vicinity gave evidence that the Musk-Rats had
been at work upon them.  The injury sustained by the farmer from these animals,
however, is by the destruction of his embankments and the excavations through
his meadows, made in constructing their galleries, rather than from the loss of
any quantity of grass or vegetables they may destroy; although their
depredations are sometimes carried on to the great injury of vegetable gardens.
     An acquaintance who had a garden in the neighbourhood of a meadow which
contained a large number of Musk-Rats, sent one day to inquire whether we could
aid in discovering the robbers who carried off almost every night a quantity of
turnips.  We were surprised to find on examining the premises, that the garden
had been plundered and nearly ruined by these Rats.  There were paths extending
from the muddy banks of the stream, winding among the rank weeds and grasses,
passing through the old worm fence, and leading to the various beds of
vegetables.  Many of the turnips had disappeared on the previous night--the
duck-like tracks of the Musk-rats were seen on the beds in every direction.  The
paths were strewn with turnip leaves, which either had dropped, or were bitten
off to render the transportation more convenient.  Their paths after entering
the meadow diverged to several burrows, all of which gave evidence that their
tenants had been on a foraging expedition on the previous night.  The most
convenient burrow was opened, and we discovered in the nest so many different
articles of food, that we were for some time under an impression that like the
chipping squirrel, chickaree, &c., this species laid up in autumn a store of
food for winter use.  There were carrots and parsnips which appeared to have
been cut into halves, the lower part of the root having been left in the ground;
but what struck us as most singular was that ears of corn (maize) not yet quite
ripe, had been dragged into the burrow with a considerable portion of the stalk
     The corn-stalks then standing in the garden were so tall that the ears
could not be reached by the Musk-Rats, and on examining the beds from which they
had probably some days previously taken the corn we found in the burrow, we
ascertained that the stalks had been gnawed off at the roots.
     Professor LEE, who resides at Buncomb, North Carolina, lately informed us
that for several summers past his fields of Indian corn, which are situated near
a stream frequented by Musk-Rats, have been greatly injured by their carrying
off whole stalks at a time, every night for some weeks together.  The above,
however, are the only instances that have come to our knowledge of their doing
any injury to the vegetable garden or to the corn-field, although this may
probably be frequently the case where the fields or gardens skirt the banks of
     These animals walk so clumsily that they seem unwilling to trust
themselves any distance from the margin of the stream or dam on which they have
taken up their residence.  We have supposed, that a considerable portion of
their food in the Northern States in some localities, was the root of the common
arrow-head, (Sagittaria, sagittifolia,) as we have often observed it had been
gnawed off, and have found bits of it at the months of their holes.  We have
also seen stems of the common Indian turnip, (Arum triphyllum,) which were cut
off, portions of which, near the root, appeared to have been eaten.  They also
feed on the spice wood, (Laurus benzoin.)  RICHARDSON says, "they feed in the
Northern districts on the roots and tender shoots of the bulrush and reed-mace,
and on the leaves of various carices and aquatic grasses."  PENNANT says, "they
are very fond of the Acorus verus, or Calamus aromaticus;" and KALM speaks of
apples being placed in traps as a bait for them.  Nearly all our writers on
natural history are correct in saying that fresh water mussels compose a portion
of their food.  Sometimes several bushels of shells may be found in a small
space near their nests.  Our young friend, SPENCER F. BAIRD, Esq., assures us
that in the neighbourhood of Carlisle Pennsylvania, on the Conodoguinet creek,
he has often observed large quantities of shells, most of which were so adroitly
opened by these animals as not to be at all broken, and would have made very
good specimens for the conchologist.  He has seen the Musk-Rat eating a mussel
occasionally on a log in the water, holding the shell between its fore-paws, as
a squirrel holds a nut.
     We once placed a quantity of mussels in a cage, to feed some Musk-Rats we
had domesticated in the North; they carried them one by one into an inner
compartment, where they were hidden from view.  Here we heard them gnawing at
the shells; we then removed a slide in the cage, which enabled us to see them at
work; they were seated, sometimes upright like a squirrel, at other times like a
rat, with the shell-fish lying on the floor, holding on to it by their
fore-paws, and breaking it open with their lower incisors.  In Carolina, we
obtained for the same purpose, although for a different family of Musk-Rats, a
quantity of mussels of the species Unio angustatus and Anodon cataracta; some of
these were too hard to be immediately opened by the animals with their teeth.
They were carried by the Musk-Rats, as usual, into a separate and darkened
portion of the cage.  We heard an occasional gnawing, but three days afterwards
many of the harder species of shell still remained unopened.  We did not again
examine the cage till after the expiration of ten days, when the shells were all
empty.  They had probably opened in consequence of the death of the animal
within, when their contents were eaten by the Rats.  Oysters were placed in the
cage, which on account of their saltness we believed would not be relished; but
a week afterwards the shells only were left.  We procured a pint of a small
species of imported Snail, (Bulimus decollatus, GMEL., mutilatus, SAY,) that has
become very destructive in many of the gardens of Charleston, and the Musk-Rats
immediately began to crush them with their teeth, and in a few days nothing but
the broken shells remained.  We have therefore come to the conclusion that
whilst vegetables are the general food of this species, various kinds of
shell-fish form no inconsiderable portion of it.  Our Musk-Rats refused fish,
but were, like most animals in confinement, fond of bread.  They were generally
fed on sweet potatoes, parsnips, cabbage, and celery; the sweet flag, (Acorus
calamus,) they rejected altogether.
     Although the Musk-Rat walks awkwardly, and proceeds so slowly that it can
scarcely be said to run, it swims and dives well.  We regard it is a better
swimmer than the mink, and from its promptness in diving at the flash of the
gun, it frequently escapes from its pursuers.  It may, however, be easily
drowned.  We once observed several of them which had been driven from their
holes, after struggling under the ice for about fifteen minutes rising to the
surface; and on taking them out, by cutting holes in the ice, they were found to
be quite dead.  RICHARDSON speaks of "their being subject at uncertain intervals
to a great mortality from some unknown cause."  We have no doubt that in very
cold winters when the ice reaches to the bottom of the ponds, and they are
confined to their holes, they devour each other, since we have seen many burrows
opened in autumn, and except in the instances we have already mentioned, we
found no provision laid up for winter use.  When a Musk-Rat has been caught by
one foot in a trap set on the land, it is frequently found torn to pieces and
partially devoured; and from the tracks around one might be induced to believe,
that, as is the case with porpoises and many other animals, when one is wounded
and cannot escape its companions turn upon and devour it.  When one is shot and
dies in the water it is very soon carried off by the living ones, if there are
any in the vicinity at the time, and is dragged into one of their holes or
nests.  We have frequently found carcasses of these animals thus concealed, but
in these cases the flesh had not been devoured.  This singular habit reminds us
of the Indians, who always carry their dead off the field of battle when they
can, and endeavour to prevent their bodies falling into the hands of their
     After a severe winter on a sudden rise in the water before the breaking up
of the ice, hundreds of Musk-Rats are drowned in their holes, especially where
there are no high shelving banks to enable them to extend their galleries beyond
the reach of the rising waters.  During these occasional freshets in early
spring, the Musk-Rats that escape drowning are driven from their holes, and swim
about from shore to shore without shelter and without food, and may be easily
destroyed.  We remember that two hunters with their guns, coursing up and down
opposite sides of a pond on one of these occasions, made such fearful havoc
among these animals that for several years afterwards we scarcely observed any
traces of them in that locality.  Many rapacious birds as well as quadrupeds
seize and devour the Musk-Rat.  When it makes its appearance on land, the fox
and the lynx capture it with great ease.  One of our young friends at
Dennisville in the State of Maine, informed us that his greatest difficulty in
procuring this species in traps arose from their being eaten after they were
caught, by the snowy owl and other birds of prey, which would frequently sit and
watch the traps, as it were keeping guard over them, until the poor Musquash was
in the toils, on seeing which they descended and made a hearty meal at the
trapper's expense, taking good care meanwhile not to expose themselves to his
vengeance, by keeping a sharp look out for him in every direction.  Our friend,
however, got the better of these wary thieves by occasionally baiting his traps
with meat instead of apples or vegetables, by which means he often caught an owl
or a hawk, instead of a Musk-Rat.  Although this species has such a long list of
enemies, it is so prolific that, like the common rat, (Mus decumanus,) it
continues to increase and multiply in many parts of the country, notwithstanding
their activity and voracity.
     The Musk-Rat has occasionally been known to leave its haunts along the
streams and ponds, and is sometimes found travelling on elevated grounds.  We
were informed by our friend Mr. BAIRD, that one was caught in a house near
Reading, in Pennsylvania, three-quarters of a mile from the water; and the late
Dr. WRIGHT of Troy once discovered one making its way through the snow, on the
top of a hill near that city.  The number of young produced at a litter varies
from three to six RICHARDSON states that they sometimes have seven, which is by
no means improbable.  They usually have three litters in a season.  Although the
Musk-Rat does not seem to possess any extraordinary instincts by which to avoid
or baffle its pursuers, we were witnesses of its sensibility of approaching
danger arising from a natural cause, manifested in a way we think deserving of
being recorded.  It is a well-known fact, that many species of quadrupeds and
birds are endowed by Nature with the faculty of foreseeing or foreknowing the
chances of the seasons, and have premonitions of the coming storm.  The swallow
commences its long aerial voyage even in summer, in anticipation of the cold.
The sea-birds become excessively restless: some seek the protection of the land,
and others, like the loon, (Colymbus glacialis,) make the shores re-echo with
their hoarse and clamorous screams, previous to excessively cold weather; the
swine also are seen carrying straw in their mouths and enlarging their beds.
After an unusual drought, succeeded by a warm Indian-summer, as we were one day
passing near a mill-pond inhabited by some families of Musk-Rats, we observed
numbers of them swimming about in every direction, carrying mouthfuls of
withered grasses, and building their huts higher on the land than any we had
seen before.  We had scarcely ever observed them in this locality in the middle
of the day, and then only for a moment as they swam from one side of the pond to
the other; but now they seemed bent on preparing for some approaching event, and
the successive reports of several guns fired by some hunters only produced a
pause in their operations  for five or ten minutes.  Although the day was bright
and fair, on that very night there fell torrents of rain succeeded by an unusual
freshet and intensely cold weather.
     This species has a strong musky smell; to us this has never appeared
particularly offensive.  It is infinitely less unpleasant than that of the
skunk, and we are less annoyed by it than by the smell of the mink, or even the
red fox.  We have, however, observed in passing some of the haunts of this Rat
at particular periods during summer, that the whole locality was strongly
pervaded by this odour.
     It is said, notwithstanding this peculiarity, that the Musk-Rat is not an
unpalatable article of food, the musky smell not being perceptible when the
animal has been properly prepared and cooked; we have, indeed, heard it stated
that Musk-Rat suppers are not unfrequent among a certain class of inhabitants on
the Eastern shore of Maryland, and that some persons prefer them, when well
dressed, to a wild duck.  Like the flesh of the bear and some other quadrupeds,
their meat somewhat resembles fresh pork, and is too rich to be eaten with much
relish for any length of time.
     By what we may almost look at as a merciful interposition of Providence,
the Musk-Rat is not found on the rice plantations of Carolina; it approaches
within a few miles of them, and then ceases to be found.  If it existed in the
banks and dykes of the rice fields, it would be a terrible annoyance, to the
planter, and possibly destroy the reservoirs on which his crops depend.
Although it reaches much farther South, and even extends to Louisiana, it is
never found on the alluvial lands within seventy miles of the sea, either in
Carolina or Georgia.
     The skins of the Musk-Rat are no longer in such high repute as they enjoyed
thirty-five years ago, and they are now only worth from six and a quarter to
twenty-five cents each.
     Dr. RICHARDSON states, (in 1824,) that between four and five thousand skins
were annually imported into Great Britain from North America.

                           GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION.

     The Musk-Rat is found as far North as the mouth of the Mackenzie river, in
latitude 69 degrees, on the Rocky mountains, on the Columbia river, and on the
Missouri.  With the exception of the alluvial lands in Carolina, Georgia,
Alabama, and Florida, it abounds in all parts of the United States north of
latitude 30 degrees.  It exists, although not abundantly, in the mountains of
Georgia, and the higher portions of Alabama.  In South Carolina, we have
obtained it from Aikin, and St. Matthew's parish, on the Congaree river, but
have never found traces of it nearer the sea than seventy miles from Charleston.

                                GENERAL REMARKS.

     The Musk-Rat, although the only species in the genus, was moved about among
several genera before it found a resting place under its present name.  SCHREBER
placed it under Mus. GMELIN, and F. CUVIER described it as a LEMMUS.  LINNAEUS
and ERXLEBEN arranged it with the beaver, and referred it to the genus CASTOR.
LESSON, LACEPEDE and CUVIER, under ONDATRA.  In 1811, ILLIGER proposed changing
its specific into a generic name.  As LINNAEUS had called it Castor Fiber, he
then established for it the genius FIBER.