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Sep 2011 cover image hunting

Wild Thing: In the Mood

The muskrat’s distinctive aroma means romance is in the air.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Cattle, rice and commercial real estate made William Perry H. McFaddin rich. Then Spindletop gushed oil on his land in 1901. Strangely enough, McFaddin also reaped profits from another natural resource: a native rodent.

In one year, his muskrat farm — one of the South’s largest — could turn out more than 200,000 pelts.

“Muskrats have a real history here,” says Jim Sutherlin, who manages the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area south of Beaumont. “Around the turn of the century, many people in Chambers and Jefferson counties got wealthy from trapping and selling muskrat pelts.”

Not anymore, though. Markets have disappeared, and muskrat populations have declined. Historically, this marsh inhabitant once occurred far west along the Canadian, Pecos and Rio Grande rivers. Now the greatest numbers of muskrats live in freshwater and slightly brackish marshes along the upper Texas coast.

Smaller than a beaver or nonnative nutria, muskrats have short legs, small eyes and ears, and dense, brownish to blackish fur. In the water, these expert swimmers use their scaly, flat tails and partly webbed back feet in lieu of a rudder and paddles. They either excavate chambers into banks (which can cause damage) or build dens from vegetation. Muskrats also construct feeding huts, where they dine on roots, cattails and grasses. Now and then, their diet may include a crayfish, fish or frog.

Factoid: The name “muskrat” refers to the musky odor of yellowish secretions that both sexes produce during mating season. The strong musk oil scent marks territories and lets others know “I’m available!”

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