Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 4, 2011

Bad Little ‘Rats

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:09 am

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I like muskrats. I like them not only for what they are as animals, but also because of their long complex relationship with us humans. This latter category provides the grist for countless stories that serve to join the natural & the cultural world into a seamless whole. In other words, muskrats are part of our cultural fabric and we of theirs.  Sorry, that was the interpreter in me making a verbose attempt at explaining why I have an affinity for something as humble as the muskrat. This is not an easy thing to do for it requires bashing the Captain and Tennille and glorifying naked muskrats floating in bowls of creamed corn. So I will stop for now. Be forewarned, however, that I will be back on this (“I vill be bock”).

Now, I know that Joe Robison, the biologist at the Pointe Mouillee State Game Area has a love-hate relationship with muskrats, although I feel his view favors the “strong dislike” side of the scale. He has told me so. They cause him more headaches than they are worth. Yes, they help maintain openings in the cat-tail marsh which serve well for waterfowl and their houses are prime nesting sites for the likes of Canada Geese, but they also dig holes through his dike system. This is a bad thing. This week I got a glimpse into that part of the Mouillee muskrat tapestry.

The purpose of a dike system is to allow for draining down isolated sections for planting feed or allowing natural forage plants to sprout, and for flooding other sections so that waterfowl have access to this feed when needed.  Mouillee already has an elaborate system of culverts and pumps to achieve the desired effects at the desired times. When certain burrowing creatures, let’s say muskrats, make Swiss Cheese out of a dike they create multiple channels for the water from one side to find it’s way to the other side at a time undesired by the marsh manager. Sometimes the results are disastrous and a portion of the dike collapses. The game area staff has to get out their big machines to re-construct the dike.

We can’t completely blame the ‘rats. They are just doing what comes natural. If someone provides a nice solid bank for them to tunnel into who are they to decline such generosity?  I can’t help but to think about the ‘rats as the character of Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” where the poor simpleton has to admit “I done a bad thing, George. I done a bad thing.” Isn’t it ultimately the water’s fault for finding the route and breaking through?  Yes, the water made it a bad thing.

I only saw a few muskrats when I was out on the dikes last week. The first was, in fact, a cute little fellow with Guinea Pig looks (see beginning photo). Sure he was in the process of attempting to block one of the Mouillee culverts with vegetation, but so what (see wider view here).  He was busy gathering and eating in the purest of wild muskrat traditions. I ask you, do those beady little eyes betray any sinister motive?

There was muskrat sign everywhere. The distinctive runway patterns issued out into the water from the numerous bank dens located under the dikes (see above).  I came across a much larger ‘rat foraging at water’s edge. He dove into the muddy brew and made directly for the entrance of his bank den. Normally the entrance would have been well below water level and he could have slipped away in secret, but because the water level was so low, he was forced to slink across an exposed mud porch before reaching his inner sanctum (see below).  Now, this was a sneaky looking ‘rat. I soon discovered the reason for his guilt. “I done a baaad thing…”

Just down from this fellow, water was pouring through a hole in the bank (see below & here). It was gushing out and cascading down the slope into the canal. At the waterline, the flow was following the fan shaped pattern which indicated that a muskrat den entrance was directly below this breach.  It was clear that this “bad old water” had found a way through the upper portion of a ‘rat’s tunnel system and had the audacity to break through a weak spot on the other side. Even though the ‘rat and the water were guilty of the crime, gravity was perpetuating it. The water on the one side of the dike was substantially higher than that on the canal side. It was flowing at a good pace – much more than a little Dutch kid could plug with his finger.

I haven’t been back yet to see if this breach resulted in a bank collapse (earthen not financial).  It was interesting to see, first hand, this ‘rat induced destruction. I’m pretty sure Joe would not use “interesting” to describe this same situation. But, isn’t it interesting…er, educational… to see that my little mammal has a mysterious and slightly sinister side? Is the muskrat a character in this play or is he the director?  I ask you.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi Gerry-I really enjoy reading your blog. We miss going on the coffee club walks and hearing you talk about all the cool nature stuff. My grandson’s love your stories. Thanks

    Comment by Mary Ann Kolaz — April 26, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

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