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Cotton rats are primarily herbivores, but will indulge in the occasional egg. Photo by Gary Leavens/ Flickr

Exploring Nature: The Cotton Rat

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Let’s hear it for the cotton rat.

This small rodent is abundant in our area, and indeed throughout Texas. Hawks, eagles and owls all enjoy eating them. It’s called cotton rat because it often builds its nest out of cotton and thrives around the cotton plant. However, it also does well in grasslands and around human habitations.

At about 10 inches long, including its 4-inch tail, the cotton rat is a favorite food of many raptors, but it returns the favor by eating the eggs and chicks of bob-white quail. However, it dines mostly on grasses and forbs.

A native of South America, this rat is smaller than the more common Norway rat, and it can live up to five years in captivity. In the wild, it usually lasts about six months.

During these six months, a female can have litters of up to 15 babies several times, making her a reproductive marvel.

There are about 14 species of cotton rat, all of them featuring small ears and a pointy nose. They range from grayish brown to dark brown and buff in coloration.

In addition to raptors, this rat is eaten by foxes, bobcats, raccoons, coyotes, weasels, mink and snakes. It tends to do best after mild winters and with adequate rainfall. I am told 1958 was a banner year for the cotton rat in Texas, with millions popping up and devouring great quantities of peas, peanuts, watermelons and cauliflowers.

While this rat is no friend to farmers, it is a mainstay in the diet of many birds. I guess you have to take the bad with the good. Just like with people.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666