Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 24, 2008

Behold the Weather ‘Rat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:43 pm


  Forget the woodchuck when it comes to weather forecasting – you’ll want to keep your eye on the lowly little muskrat for your seasonal prognostications. The ‘rat report is just as inaccurate as the ‘chuck report but it can be consulted much earlier. You can, in other words, get your mis-information much quicker on the muskrat channel.

  Face it, woodchucks are weather cowards. They dig burrows and hibernate when things get cold. The only “wisdom” they impart is when the winter will end and they are not very good at that either. Muskrats, on the other hand, tough it out. These overgrown aquatic field mice remain active all winter and do so while fully immersed in the water.  Now, tell me, which animal should you listen to when the subject of old man winter comes up?

  The real answer to this question is, of course, that neither creature can tell you a thing.  They don’t talk and don’t know how to predict anything. Humans that believe otherwise should  considered as “special” and avoided if at all possible. This didn’t stop certain 19th century naturalists since they were already considered “special” by the populous. They crowned the muskrat, not the woodchuck, as the weather wise sage.

  Of course they knew that muskrats were incapable of speech, but they claimed that the ‘rats spoke through their actions and not their words.  They stated a correlation between the size of the muskrat’s lodge and the severity of the winter that followed it. In short, this meant that larger lodges meant “larger” winters.

 November is lodge building month for most muskrats. In spite of the economy, our local muskrats have been very busy builders this November. I conducted a scientific survey of six lodges in one small section of marsh. Two were huge, two were medium, one was still under construction, and one looked like it was made by a first grader on a Sunday afternoon. Based on  this exaustive work, I’ve determined that there is a 50% chance that this coming winter will be severe. Call it guessing, but those are the numbers my friend.

  The largest lodges were made of American Lotus stems, leaves, and pods (see one of these mega-condos in the above picture). The lotus is a big-leaved plant. Big plants make for big lodges. Lotus lodges may look nice, but these houses are consistently destroyed by winter ice and wave action. they are like the proverbial house of straw versus the winter wolf. I guarantee that these constructions will be gone by mid-winter. Lotus eating muskrats thinks big, but they don’t live very long – for them all winters are bad.

  The lodge “under construction” (see here) is what I would call a medium sized structure but it is a work in progress. In this case, the lodge was made up of piled cattails stalks and bottom debris such as old water lily leaves. Muskrats habitually pile the stuff up and chew a network of tunnels and rooms through the interior as it settles. This one was only three days into the process when this picture was taken last week. It may eventually reach the huge status of the Lotus lodges, but for now it stands as a monument to a so-so winter.

  The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the house will survive as a dependable shelter through the coming winter. Unfortunately, the creek does rise and fall around these parts and the Good Lord has been known to taketh as well as giveth. There is a better than even chance that this lodge will not make it either. I guess it bears repeating that, for a muskrat, all winters are bad.

  Given the above discussion it should be no surprise that most of “our” muskrats are actually “bank ‘rats.”  They live in branching tunnel systems excavated into the earthen banks next to the cattail and Lotus beds. Hmm, come to think of it woodchucks do the same thing.

 Go ahead, see if you can divine the weather ‘rat’s winter forecast this year. They may indeed have some instinctual weather wisdom which they unwittingly display in their lodge building styles. Personally, I don’t think muskrats waste much time on such nebulous things. To a muskrat, all winters are bad and all winters eventually end.

1 Comment »

  1. Aw… they’re so cute! I love how rodents (rats, squirrels, etc.) wash their faces. Now if you don’t mind an unsolicited technical tip, it seems WordPress stretches portrait-oriented photos if you select them as large. It seems to work better when used with medium, though landscape photos go to large just fine.

    Comment by Monica Milla — November 27, 2008 @ 9:13 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress