Page 32
Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon - by Robert A. Sterndale F.R.G.S., F.Z.S. (1884)

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Family Sorecidae


125. SOREX CÆRULESCENS. The Common Musk Shrew, better known as Musk-rat.

NATIVE NAME.—Chachhunder, Hind.; Sondeli, Canarese.

HABITAT.—India generally.

DESCRIPTION.—Bluish gray, sometimes slightly mouse-coloured; naked parts flesh-coloured.

SIZE.—Head and body, 6 to 7 inches; tail 3½ to 4 inches.

This little animal is almost too well known, as far as its appearance is concerned, to need much description, though most erroneous ideas prevail about its habits. It is proverbially difficult to uproot an old-established prejudice; and, though amongst my friends I have been fighting its battles for the poor little shrew for years, I doubt whether I have converted many to my opinions. Certainly its appearance and its smell go strongly against it—the latter especially—but even here its powers are greatly exaggerated. I think by this time the old fallacy of musk-rats tainting beer and wine in bottles by simply running over them is exploded. When I came out in 1856 it was a common thing at the mess table, or in one's own house, to reject a bottle of beer or wine, because it was "musk-ratty;" but how seldom is the complaint made now since country-bottled beverages are not used? Jerdon, Kellaart, and every Indian naturalist scouts the idea of this peculiar power to do what no chemist has yet succeeded in, viz., the creation of an essence subtle enough to pass through glass. That musky bottles were frequent formerly is due to impregnated corks and insufficient washing before the bottle was filled. The musk-rat in a quiescent state is not offensive, and its odour is more powerful at certain seasons. I am peculiarly sensitive to smells, and dislike that of musk in particular, yet I have no objection to a musk-rat running about my room quietly if I do not startle him. I never allow one to be killed, and encourage their presence in the house, for I think the temporary inconvenience of a whiff of musk is amply repaid by the destruction of the numerous objectionable insects which lurk in the corners of Indian houses. The notion that they do damage by gnawing is an erroneous one, the mischief done by mice and rats being frequently laid to their charge; they have not the powerful dentition necessary for nibbling through wood and mortar. In my book on 'Camp Life in Seonee,' I say a good word for my little friends, and relate as follows an experiment which I tried many years ago: "We had once been talking at mess about musk-rats; some one declared a bottle of sherry had been tainted, and nobody defended the poor little beast but myself, and I was considerably laughed at. However, one night soon after, as I was dressing before dinner, I heard a musk-rat squeak in my room. Here was a chance. Shutting the door, I laid a clean pocket-handkerchief on the ground next to the wall, knowing the way in which the animal usually skirts round a room; on he came and ran over the handkerchief, and then, seeing me, he turned and went back again. I then headed him once more and quietly turned him; and thus went on till I had made him run over the handkerchief five times. I then took it up, and there was not the least smell. I then went across to the mess house, and, producing the handkerchief, asked several of my brother officers if they could perceive any peculiar smell about it. No, none of them could. 'Well, all I know is,' said I, 'that I have driven a musk-rat five times over that pocket-handkerchief just now.'"

When I was at Nagpore in 1864 I made friends with one of these shrews, and it would come out every evening at my whistle and take grasshoppers out of my fingers. It seemed to be very short-sighted, and did not notice the insect till quite close to my hand, when, with a short swift spring, it would pounce upon its prey.

A correspondent of The Asian, writing from Ceylon, gives an account of a musk-rat attacking a large frog, and holding on to it in spite of interference.

McMaster says that these shrews will also eat bread, and adds: "insects, however, form their chief diet, so they thus do us more good than harm. I once disturbed one that evidently had been eating part of a large scorpion."


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