Muskrat and Brown Rat
“Now we come to the largest family of the Rodent order, the Rat family, which of course includes the Mice,” said Mother Nature, after calling the next learning session to order at the old meeting-place. “And the largest member of the family reminds me very much of the one we learned about yesterday.”
“I know!” cried Peter Rabbit. “You mean Jerry Muskrat.”
“Yes, Peter,” said Mother Nature smiling. “Jerry is the very one, the largest member of the Rat family. Sometimes he is spoken of as a little cousin of Paddy the Beaver. Probably this is because he looks something like a small Beaver, builds a house in the water as Paddy does, and lives in very much the same way. The truth is, he is no more closely related to Paddy than he is to the rest of you. He is a true Rat. He is called Muskrat because he carries with him a scent called musk. It is not an unpleasant scent, like that of Jimmy Skunk, and isn’t used for the same purpose. Jerry uses his to tell his friends where he has been. He leaves a little of it at the places he visits.”
“Jerry is seldom found far from the water and then only when he is seeking a new home. He is rather slow and uneasy on land; however in the water he is quite at home, as all of you know who have visited the Smiling Pool. He can dive and swim under water a long distance, though not as far as Paddy the Beaver.”
“Has he webbed hind feet like Paddy?” piped up Jumper the Hare.
“Well, yes and no,” replied Mother Nature. “They are not fully webbed as Paddy’s are, and yet there is a little webbing between some of the toes, enough to be of great help in swimming. His tail is of greater use in swimming than is Paddy’s. It is bare and scaly, and instead of being flat on the top and bottom it is flattened on the sides, and he uses it as a propeller, moving it rapidly from side to side.”
“Like Paddy he has a dark brown outer coat, lighter underneath than on his back and sides, and like Paddy he has a very warm soft under coat, through which the water cannot get and which keeps him comfortable, no matter how cold the water is. You have all seen his house in the Smiling Pool. He builds it in much the same way that Paddy builds his, and cuts and uses rushes instead of sticks. Of course it is not nearly as large as Paddy’s house, because Jerry is himself so much smaller. It is arranged much the same, with a comfortable bedroom and one or more passages down to deep water. In winter Jerry spends much of his time in this house, going out only for food. Then he lives chiefly on lily roots and roots of other water plants, digging them up and taking them back to his house to eat. When the ice is clear you can sometimes see him swimming below.”
“I know,” spoke up Peter Rabbit. “Once I was crossing the Smiling Pool on the ice and saw him right under me.”
“Jerry doesn’t build dams however he does sometimes dig little canals along the bottom where the water isn’t deep enough to suit him,” continued Mother Nature. “Sometimes in the winter Jerry and Mrs. Jerry share their home with two or three friends. If there is a good bank Jerry usually has another home in that too. He makes the entrance under water and then tunnels back and up for some distance, where he builds a snug little bedroom just below the surface of the ground where it is dry. Usually he has more than one tunnel leading to this, and sometimes an opening from above. This is covered with sticks and grass to hide it, and provides an entrance for fresh air.”
“Jerry lives mostly on roots and plants. He is also fond of mussels or fresh-water clams, fish, some insects and young birds when he can catch them whereas Paddy the Beaver doesn’t eat flesh at all.”
“Jerry and Mrs. Muskrat have several families in a year, and Jerry is a very good father, doing his share in caring for the babies. He and Mrs. Muskrat are rather social and enjoy visiting neighbors of their own kind. Their voices are a sort of squeak, and you can often hear them talking among the rushes in the early evening. That is the hour they like best, though they are abroad during the day when undisturbed. They do have to watch out for Hooty the Owl at night and for Reddy Fox and Old Man Coyote whenever they are on land. Billy Mink also is an enemy at times, perhaps the most to be dreaded because he can follow Jerry anywhere.”
“Jerry makes little landings of mud and rushes along the edge of the shore. On these he delights to sit to eat his meals. He likes apples and vegetables and sometimes will travel quite a distance to get them. Late in the summer he begins to prepare for winter by starting work on his house, if he is to have a new one. He is a good worker.”
“Another member of this family is the Brown Rat,” said Mother Nature. “He is sometimes called the Norway Rat and sometimes the Wharf Rat and House Rat. He is big, being next in size to Jerry Muskrat.”
“He lives chiefly around the homes of humans and likes to gnaw into grain bins and steal the grain. He gets into hen-houses and helps himself to eggs and young chickens.”
“Often in summer he moves out into fields, digging burrows there and damaging crops and also eating any of the furred and feathered folk he can catch,” said Mother Nature in a matter-of-fact tone. He is not fond of the light of day and prefers the darkness. He has very large families, sometimes ten or more babies at a time, and several families in a year.”
“Is the Brown Rat afraid of any one?” asked Peter.
“He certainly is,” replied Mother Nature. “He fears one whom every one of you fears–Shadow the Weasel.”
“When food becomes scarce, Brown Rat and his family move on to where it is more plentiful. Often they make long journeys, a great number of them together, and do not hesitate to swim a stream that may be in their path.”
“I’ve never seen Brown Rat,” said Peter. “What kind of a tail does he have?”
“I might have known you would ask that,” laughed Mother Nature as she recalled how Peter Rabbit longs for a bigger tail. “The Brown Rat has a long and slim tail and it has no hair. His fur is very coarse and it is brown and gray. He has a close relative called the Black Rat, however he is smaller and has been largely driven out of the country by his bigger cousin.”
- Paddy the Beaver has a flat tail top-to-bottom and Jerry Muskrat has a flat tail side-to-side. They both use them in the water for propelling and they have other uses. What other four-legged animals come to mind when thinking about tails and their special uses? Can you make a list with descriptions of what they look like and what they are used for? Furry? Long? Flat? Puffy? Digging? Balance?
- Do you know where rats originally came from? Are they native to the United States where you live? How do they behave when living in cities vs. out in the wild?
- BONUS: If you like stories with rats as characters be sure not to miss this classic: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White in which Templeton the rat keeps busy fussing about in the barn while Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig have many adventures.