Nature Notes: Weasels
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The forecast called for temperatures well below zero, and the wood box in my cabin needed topping off. Grabbing my log carrier, I headed to the woodpile. After placing the first big chunk of maple in the carrier, I looked back to the woodpile and found myself face to face with a small, sleek creature with blazing black eyes. It took me a couple seconds to recover from my surprise, and to recognize my challenger as a weasel, beautiful in his luxurious winter coat. After a short stare down, the weasel popped back down in the woodpile, probably irritated that I’d interrupted his hunt for a tasty mouse.
My title above refers to weasels plural, since Maine is home to two and possibly three weasels. We have the long tailed weasel, up to 18″ long including a tail of five to six inches, and the ermine, or short tailed weasel, up to 12 inches including a tail of four inches. These weasels range from three to eight ounces at maturity. An even smaller cousin called the least weasel, found from Alaska to Pennsylvania and southern New York, is not thought to live in our state.
Since weasel sightings are generally fleeting, identification can be difficult. Males are generally 30-40 percent larger than females. Only the long tailed weasel and the ermine have a black tipped tail, while only the ermine and least weasel have white feet. The term ermine has been commonly used to describe any weasel seen in winter with a white pelt, famous for its use in the robes of European nobility.
Weasels are part of the diverse Mustelidae family, which includes an array of interesting mammals — weasels, stoats, ferrets, mink, skunks, otters, martens, fishers, badgers and wolverines. The common feature of all is the presence of anal scent glands, which produce a pungent liquid used for dosing territorial markers like stumps and rocks, and for self-defense when the animals are threatened. I can attest to the sharply unpleasant odor of a weasel’s scent glands, having punctured one many years ago when processing furs from my boyhood trapline. Unfortunately this happened in the basement of my family home, right under the open floor register that carried warm air upstairs. Let’s just say that I was persona non grata for a couple days after that slip of the knife!
Many people, even those who spend lots of time outdoors, have never seen a weasel. Partly this is due to the fact that weasels are well adapted to hunting at night, when their favored prey species are most active. Also, given their diminutive size, weasels are shy in nature, preferring to hang around stone walls, brush piles, old foundations and animal burrows in areas of heavy vegetation where mice, voles, shrews and rats make up the large majority of their diet. Weasels are also known to kill rabbits, squirrels, worms, snakes, insects and birds. Their ability to kill multiple chickens in a single night did not endear them to farmers, at least in the old days when many rural homes had a chicken coop out back. Let’s just say that calling someone a weasel is generally not considered a compliment!
Yet, these streamlined creatures are a beautiful and vital part of our natural world. They are among the most adaptable creatures on earth, living on several continents and in a wide range of climates from our own deep south to the Arctic. Their reproductive cycle covers nine months, with up to 10 young born in April or May. The female (sometimes called a “jill”) keeps the tiny pups warm in her den lined with fur, feathers and vegetation. Weaned from her milk in a few weeks, the pups become independent by the autumn, when they must find their own home range and fend for themselves. With a very high metabolism (heart rates can exceed 400 beats per minute), weasels can consume up to 1/3 their weight daily, making them active and effective predators of species that could easily over populate if not controlled.
Weasels live in a tough world, where they become prey for raptors, fox, dogs, cats and some of their larger cousins. Their life span is only four to five years so they hunt long and hard to make the most of their limited time on Earth. Given the weasel’s size and shape, escape into small holes is their best defense, but if cornered, a weasel is capable of putting up a good fight with a strong, wiry body and very sharp teeth. Whether seen in their summer coat of tan with a white belly, or in their thick, lustrous winter coat of gleaming white, you will count yourself lucky the first, or the next, time you encounter one of these svelte little dynamos.