Park animals, part two — green heron, muskrat

HANCOCK COUNTY — Let’s visit a couple more animals seen in our parks, though a bit more rarely. These have been seen on only a couple of occasions, but we know they’re hanging around.

First we’ll visit Beckenholdt Park and the green heron. This bird has been seen only a couple of times hanging around the wetlands on the west side of the park. This bird stands 15 to 22 inches tall (about the size of a crow).

A green heron has bright orange or yellow legs with a dagger-like bill. Its color is mostly velvet green on the back with a darker cap. It’s one of the few tool-using birds and will use twigs or insects as bait. Unlike the larger herons, green herons don’t generally wade (if they do, it’s in water less than 4 inches deep). At times they will venture into deeper water by plunging on the prey from above.

They live near wooded ponds, marshes and rivers but have been known to nest up to one-half mile from the closest water. The nests are placed in a secluded site in a fork of a large tree or bush. It likes to nest in pines, oaks, willow, hickory and sassafras trees.

This nest could be on or over the water, or it can be a distance away and anywhere from ground level up to 30 feet above the ground. They do occasionally breed in colonies.

Both parents brood and feed the chicks, which normally number three to five. The chicks may stay more than a month with the parents after they leave the nest while they learn to forage on their own.

It’s a very retiring bird; you don’t generally notice it until it flies up unexpectedly from the edge of the water.

Next we move on to Thornwood, The Little Brandywine Creek and the muskrat. This animal gets up to about 3 pounds, 20 inches long and looks rather like a large field mouse, but nicer. They have large hind feet that aren’t webbed with a tail that’s a bit flattened on the side that they use as a rudder. It and its cousin the beaver are the only mammals that build homes on the water.

These animals are a bit awkward and clumsy on land and are more equipped for the aquatic life. Muskrats live mostly around shallow water, and most live in the northeast corner of the state.

Although they are famous for their domed houses of mud and vegetation, they can live just as well in burrows with their nest chambers above the water level but with an entrance from the water.

Most are born during May and June, being about one-half ounce at birth and about six per littler. They grow rapidly, are weaned and can live on their own in about a month, swimming well but not diving yet.

The male muskrat will help build the nest but doesn’t enter once the young ones are born. Muskrats are quite tolerant of each other (except during the mating season), and several may live together in the same den.

Most muskrats live within a few hundred yards of where they were born but can and will move to a new location several miles away if conditions warrant the move.

While they are vegetarians they will eat (if pressed) the carrion of frogs, fish and other muskrats. Cattails are the main staple of their diet.

Unlike its cousin the beaver, the muskrat does not store food for the winter and will tunnel in the mud to get under the ice for fresh food. If they become overly abundant they can create problems by digging holes in dikes and dams.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department.