Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Duck-chasing muskrat is likely playing, not hunting

By STACEY COLE January 12. 2018 9:40PM
 (Metro Creative Connection)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2000.

"It's good to write to someone who is truly interested in little stories that occur in Nature." So began a letter (Nov. 7, 1999) from one of our Nashua readers. The letter continued:

“We could tell you several crazy stories about the antics of gray squirrels, but the story that we want to share with you and your readers is about ducks and a determined muskrat!

“We have a small pond that can be seen from our back window. Mallard ducks usually take over the general area. This fall, however, two black ducks have been here now for many weeks. All is serene and peaceful until a muskrat makes an entry and then the action starts! The muskrat starts swimming after them and the ducks just barely keep ahead of him. When he gets too close, then the ducks fly up and land a few yards away. As the ducks take flight, he makes one extra surge and creates quite a ripple or wave. And then it starts all over again. This can go on for upwards of an hour. Later in the day the performance begins again!

“Is the muskrat claiming his territory or would he eat the duck if he could catch it? A long-time friend of mine believes that a muskrat would eat baby ducklings. Have you even seen or heard of this kind of behavior?”

No, I have never witnessed such aggressive behavior on the part of a muskrat. We have frequently seen them swimming in the Ashuelot River carrying great mouthfuls of long grass in their mouths. We also have had them visit our beaver pond from time to time. Although this summer we have photographed mink and river otter while they visited our pond, we haven’t seen a muskrat for the past two years.

Generally speaking, the muskrat is a rather playful animal and it is my guess that it simply enjoyed chasing the ducks across the pond just to get a rise out of them. Be that as it may, our reader’s suggestion that the muskrat may have been defending its territory appears to be a logical one as these animals are subject to attack from many other animals and have to be very wary to survive. Muskrats are not cowardly and have been known to fight to the death. They have been known to even attack a man when cornered from a place of refuge.

The muskrat’s eating habits are essentially that of a vegetarian, although there is minor use of animal food including fish, frogs, and other aquatic animals such as fresh water mussels, crayfish and snails. However, percentage-wise, their consumption of animal food is very low.

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A Center Ossipee reader enclosed a photograph of a flock of common grackles of normal coloration except for one. He wrote in part: “I had this flock of grackles on my lawn two days in a row. One was an albino or partially so. They left the second day and I never saw them again.”

Even though the grackle shown in the photo did exhibit an unusual number of white feathers, it was a partial albino.

Partial albinism is the most frequent form of albinism. Partial albinism within local parts of the body may involve certain feathers only and is often symmetrical, that is, each side of the bird may show white feathers in the same pattern.

Although the grackle our reader photographed appeared to be well accepted within the larger flock, quite frequently albino or partial albino birds are not well accepted by their peers and are sometimes harassed unmercifully.

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In our Nature Talks column of Nov. 27, I wrote, “Ravens are not very common in central or southern New Hampshire and they are usually seen either singly or in pairs.” That evening a Hancock reader wrote to me and passed along the following observation: “We live in the far north end of Hancock, deep in the woods. Just this evening, at sunset, I observed at least eight ravens and possibly twice that number, wheeling and soaring about. It’s quite difficult to determine exact numbers because I have very little open sky visible.

“They apparently roost in the big white pines in the back here, along with a number of Tom turkeys which we see here almost daily. It’s fascinating to listen to their various squawks, gurgles and various other sounds as they begin to settle in for the night. They are quite gregarious. These birds have been gathering here almost daily for the past several weeks and seem to arrive from several directions to roost together.”

I found an interesting comment about the raven in Henry David Thoreau’s Journal of March 29, 1853. Thoreau quoted one Gilbert White as having said: “There is a peculiarity belonging to ravens that must draw the attention even of the most incurious — they spend all their leisure time in striking and cuffing each other on the wing in a kind of playful skirmish.”

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.


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