What Is That … a Beaver or a Muskrat? 

Waddellsby Carolyn and Bruce Waddell

We were sitting on our deck enjoying a glass of wine just before sunset in May when we noticed a dark brown, furry animal emerge from the water.  What was it, a beaver or a muskrat?  We watched in the dimming light as it proceeded to munch on white pine seedlings we had just planted near the shoreline.  Out came the camera and Bruce took pictures which allowed us to confirm, based on its diet and large horizontally flattened tail, that it was a Canadian beaver.

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The following month, we were entertained while sitting in our screened-in porch, safely out of reach of the ravenous deer flies, watching another dark brown, furry animal swimming back and forth along our shoreline.  We discerned a pattern; while swimming westward the animal carried a mouth full of aquatic plants but its mouth was empty on the eastward return of its circuit.  Out came the camera, and we were able to identify it as a muskrat gathering and transporting food to its den which it had burrowed into the bank of our shore.

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Bruce frequently encounters muskrats when kayaking early in the morning.  He is usually able to get fairly close to the muskrats, which often are floating on the lake surface or sitting at the shore munching on aquatic plants.

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One morning, a muskrat swam to within a foot of his kayak, as if intending to climb onboard, but it changed its mind at the last moment and dove, returning to the surface after a few seconds with a mouthful of aquatic plants.  After reviewing many photos we noted that these rodents float high enough in the water  that you can usually see their heads, backs and vertically flattened tails.

We occasionally see beaver while canoeing after supper but all you see in the distance is a dark furry head sticking out of the water.

Once it spots you,  the beaver slaps its flat tail on the water surface as it dives.   Beaver are powerful swimmers under water and can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes.  While they are much shyer than muskrat, their wooden lodges are prominent and easily identified along the shoreline.

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Both these aquatic mammals are rodents that remain active year-round and are trapped for their dense fur.  Beaver, the largest rodents in North America, weigh an average 18 to 28 kilograms in adulthood, while the smaller muskrat weighs up to two kilograms only.  Beaver are well known for their tree felling activities to obtain their main food and building materials.

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Muskrats feed primarily on aquatic plants, notably cattails and water lilies, but also prey on frogs, clams and insects.  Both are important prey species for carnivores.  Their foraging activities support environments that are relied on by diverse species of plants, insects, birds and animals.