April 14, 2019
After months of warm, sunny weather in Florida, it was hard to wake up this morning to freezing temperatures and snow on the ground here in Michigan! Happily though, I’m sitting in front of a warm fire thinking about our sunny walk yesterday through our local bird sanctuary and all the beautiful birds that Mel and I saw along the way.
The Kellogg Bird Sanctuary is one of our favorite places to visit. Besides the fact that there are always birds to see, it’s a lovely place for a leisurely walk around the lake. Even in the wintertime, you can find geese or swans or ducks gathered there. In the warmer months, the lake attracts any number of other waterfowl that are either hoping to stay for awhile or just passing through.
On yesterday’s walk, we had the pleasure of seeing Canada Geese, Trumpeter Swans, Mallards, Wood Ducks, Blue Winged Teals, and a few Great Blue Herons. In addition to all these native birds, the bird sanctuary provides a home for a number of non-native birds including a very colorful Mandarin Duck and an elegant Black Swan and a few Whooper Swans. The Whooper Swan (pronounced Hooper) is a large Eurasian swan whose counterpart here in the states is the Trumpeter Swan.
Besides all the larger more obvious birds, I always hope to see a variety of the small songbirds. I did hear a lot of singing going on, but not many of the birds seemed willing to go out on a limb for me and pose for a picture.
The biggest surprise of the day, though, was the muskrat. I wasn’t surprised to see him swimming in the water in the afternoon, but I was surprised to see him walking around. I’ve only ever seen the tops of a muskrats, and only momentarily as they swam past me and then dipped quickly under the water again.
This particular muskrat had been swimming in the lake when I first saw him but had entered a nearby pond via an underground channel. His goal, I soon discovered, was to reach a low hanging duck feeder along the fenced enclosure. Since I had never witnessed muskrat behavior on land before, I decided to stick around and see what he was up to. I watched in fascination as he made numerous attempts to reach the food in a perch that was just a little too high for him reach easily. Eventually, though, he succeeded in fitting his chubby little body into the feeder and eating to his heart’s content.
Because I had never given much thought to the secret lives of muskrats, I knew virtually nothing about them– so I decided to do a little digging. I found the usual mundane information about size (16-28 inches including the tail) and weight (1.3 to 4.4 pounds) and habitat (wetlands), but it was a tiny paragraph at the very end of a Wikipedia article that really caught my attention…
“Muskrats have sometimes been a food resource for North Americans. In the southeastern portion of Michigan, a longstanding dispensation allows Catholics to consume muskrat as their Friday penance, on Ash Wednesday, and on Lenten Fridays (when the eating of flesh, except for fish, is prohibited); this tradition dates back to at least the early 19th century.”
What??? I grew up on the southeast side of this state AND I grew up Catholic But we NEVER consumed muskrat during Lent– or EVER for that matter. I’d never even heard of such a practice! I needed to dig a little deeper…
“The custom of eating muskrat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent apparently goes back to the early 1800s, the time of Father Gabriel Richard, an early missionary in Michigan whose flock included French-Canadian trappers. Legend has it that because trappers and their families were going hungry not eating flesh during Lent, he allowed them to eat muskrat, with the reasoning that the mammal lives in the water.” (Lukowski, Kristin (March 8, 2007), “Muskrat love: Friday Lent delight for some OKed as fish alternative”, Catholic News Service, Catholic.org, archived from the original on March 26, 2013, retrieved March 31, 2013)
And there you have it! Apparently it’s true. (But I think I’ll stick to just watching muskrats swim and eat for the time being, thank you very much!)