Winter is a great time to learn to read wildlife signs and explore the wonderful stories of those who live at and around the Lusitania meadow. For instance, have you ever noticed that small mound of sticks at Black’s Nook? This is likely to be the winter hut of a little mammal. That shelter had persisted for a few years, but it seems to be gone now. Hopefully, nothing bad happened to its resident, and s/he (or the progeny) simply relocated somewhere else nearby.
Claire is a co-founder of Earthwise Aware (EwA), an environmental nonprofit that brings biodiversity knowledge and science, ecological ethics, and environmental leadership to the heart of communities. She is the director of EwA's Biodiversity & Climate Participatory Science program– an initiative that connects the public with its immediate natural systems and empowers communities. EwA focuses on place-based urban wildlife and natural history, and the conservation of species interactions. Its program runs regular continuous biodiversity and phenology studies in 8 cities. The program fosters a deeper understanding of ecological systems and provides tools to the public to make evidence-based environmental decisions. Locally, Claire is a co-organizer of the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge for the Greater Boston Area. She also serves as a board member of the Friends of the Fells, and is an advisor for the Green & Open Somerville group. [More...]
Claire strongly believes that individually and altogether we can be ethically & ecologically engaged–whoever we are, whatever we do, and wherever we are. Ethical Nature conservation is not circumstantial, it is a mindset that you acquire which then turns into a way of life. Once on that path, a great many rewards for us becomes obvious. And the satisfaction out of practicing good ethics is almost addictive. There is no looking back...
Her favorite motto: “Nature Conservation as A Way of Life”
EwA citizen scientists and interns survey the Lusitania meadow 📍 for arthropods every single week during the warm seasons. During the colder months, we explore the general biodiversity of the reservation in more detail. This gives us the opportunity to get to know the meadow and its surroundings intimately. Each week highlights different relationships between the plants and their visitors—fascinating stories unfold. This almanac is a wonderful means to share with our communities what we observe and record at Lusitania over the course of the year.
📅 Twice a month, we open EwA documentation sessions to the public. Check us out on Eventbrite and come experience with us the magic of a few of our sites—biodiversity oases in a very urban region.
At this time of the year, while cormorants and waterfowl share the various ponds in the area, wildlife is otherwise fairly quiet. We are now deep into winter, although we just passed the solstice (around Dec. 21st) which means increasing daylight. The average daily low temperature throughout January in Boston is -5.4ºC (22.2ºF), and the average high is 2.1ºC (35.8ºF). It’s cold for sure, yet it hasn’t reached its most extreme low which usually occurs in February. In January, there is usually a protective sheet of ice on the various ponds in the area. It’s also the month when the most snowfall occurs with a recorded average snowfall of 12.9 cm (33 in). These days, though, it is hard to tell if snowpack or ice could withstand the abnormally warm temperatures if it even forms at all.
For a time, one could easily sight a mound close to the edge of Black’s Nook. It is rather fun to hypothesize what mammal makes that kind of home. The size of the mound, where it is located: a wet habitat, close to the pond bank, at a shallow depth, the hardy aquatic grass that makes the walls of the hut, and the plants in that pond in general, are all indicators that this hut is the living quarter of a muskrat.
Muskrat lodge, made of aquatic plants, twigs and mud [ Record > ]
Lotus: Both food & building material for the muskrat [ Record > ]
Muskrats are medium-sized semi-aquatic rodents, the only species of the genus Ondatra. They are native to North America and were introduced to Europe and Asia in the 20th century for the fur trade. Their fur is a nice light to dark brown color, very dense, and waterproof. A muskrat looks like a small beaver. It is stubby with a large head, very small ears, big yellow incisor teeth, and a long fairly flat tail. It weighs 1-2 kgs (2-4.5 lbs). They whistle when they stalk each other. If you hear a growl, you’re probably too close –give him or her space.
Muskrats live in wet habitats, such as ponds, lakes, streams, wet meadows, and marshes. It’s a rather solitary animal, living alone or in a small family unit consisting of the male, the female, and that year’s litter. Although solitary, they sometimes peacefully share living quarters with beavers. The muskrat got its name because of the strong musky scent that it emits during the reproduction period.
Unless you stay after dark, your chances of seeing him or her are rather small. They are nocturnal and avoid our kind and other predators under the cover of night. As soon as daylight is over, it starts looking for food. Usually, food is made of aquatic plants, including cattail (that wonderful wetland grass that we showcased in the EwA November almanac), lotus, roots, and occasionally small aquatic invertebrates.
That little elusive mammal is perfectly adapted to its habitat. The density of their fur keeps them dry and warm in harsh conditions. Its semipalmated hind feet are ideal for swimming and its tail acts as a rudder. The muskrat has 2 pairs of incisor teeth made to cut and hold cattail and other grass when on the move. These are terrific weapons as well and can inflict serious wounds to some of their predators. It has very dexterous ‘hands’ that they use for building ‘things’.
Cattail and other aquatic plants, brush, and mud provides the material for its living quarters and other structures that they build.
🐾 The Muskrat in Native American Creation Stories
These days, we don’t give the muskrat too much thought. They are small, elusive, seen as a pest by most, and have been harshly treated by the fur trade. Who would have thought then that this little hardy rodent played a very important part in Native American creation stories?
Here is my interpretation of one of those wonderful stories: In the Turtle island story for the Ojibway/Anishinabe people, there was a great flood, a purification of sorts initiated by the Great Mystery (Kitchy-Manitou), who put a stop to the folly of men who were turning against one another. A few survived the deluge and floated on a raft. Among them, Nanaboozhoo (a spirit), decided to dive to grab a handful of earth to recreate land. He failed. Several others dove too: the loon, the mink, the beaver… all failed. Then the muskrat stepped forward and proposed to try. More powerful animals than him laughed at him. He dove and stayed below a great deal of time–more than any of the others. Eventually, when all started to lose hope, he resurfaced. He was dead. He had stayed too long without air and had succumbed. But, when Nanaboozhoo opened the clinched small paw of the muskrat, there it was: the precious earth that is now the land we stand on.
The way I see it is that we owe our very existence today to that humble little muskrat. As for its descendants: “The muskrats do their part today in remembering the great flood; they build their homes in the shape of the little ball of Earth and the island that was formed from it.”
Source: The Creation Story–Turtle Island For the Ojibway/Anishinabe people | www.pipekeepers.org/
At this time of the year, when it is cold out and there is ice on the pond, muskrats stay in their refuge or under ‘cover’. The loss of ice and snowpack is increasing at an alarming rate throughout the northern regions. It is to know how it affects all the creatures that have adjusted to–and even depend on– those specific winter conditions. It has been reported recently that such loss is now harming our forest year-round. This will be the topic of another of EwA’s almanacs.
Enjoy your visit. 📅–Join any of our monthly walks. Share your findings with us (you can comment below)! We will be back next month with a new slice of life in the meadow.
EwA Useful Links
📰–Northern Forest Winters Have Lost Cold, Snowy Conditions That Are Important for Ecosystems and Human Communities. Contosta, A. R., et al. (2019) in Ecological Applications 29(7):e01974. 10.1002/eap.1974
📖–The Book of Swamp & Bog: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern Freshwater Wetlands (1995) by John Eastman (Author), Amelia Hansen (Illustrator)
by Claire O’Neill | Updated January, 15th 2023
First published January, 3rd 2021. The photos in this article are visual records that the EwA team collects at our various study sites, including at Fresh Pond. Click on any picture, and you will land on the record and its owner (The records shown in this article are from Claire O’Neill and Jennifer Clifford). Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC). See EwA’s biodiversity occurrence records specific to this place in the EwA at Fresh Pond iNaturalist project.
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