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The Queen Wore a Weasel

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The weasel came back to visit today.  I returned late in the afternoon after a day in town, and as I was sorting out all the stuff that came home with me I happened to notice three rabbits sitting around the woodpile across the driveway from the front of the house.  This is not uncommon.  Two or three rabbits are around the woodpile off and on every day.  Sometimes one will hop up onto the top of the pile of logs to sit there seven feet off the ground for half-an-hour at a time.  Since several rabbits live underneath an old dilapidated granary about thirty feet from the woodpile they may view it as a front porch from which they can keep track of what’s happening in the neighborhood.  Normally I don’t pay them much attention, and such was the case this afternoon until I saw the weasel come out from under the granary, and head to the woodpile.  One rabbit hopped under the logs, but the other two appeared to pay the weasel no attention, although I don’t doubt their large protruding eyes were watching him closely.

I grabbed the camera with the telephoto lens off a shelf, and headed outside.  There was no way to approach the woodstack without being in full view of the critters, so I walked casually across the driveway as if I were just out for a stroll.  They all watched me until I was about fifteen feet away when the two remaining rabbits hopped down to the granary, and the weasel scurried up onto a log.  Figuring the curious creature might come to take a look a me I quickly stepped out of view to the end of the pile.  Sure enough a little white head with coal black eyes peered around the corner.

I said, “Where you been?  I haven’t seen you for a few days?”  He didn’t reply, of course, but came out another foot or so on the log to get a better view.  I took three or four photos before he_IGP2839 jumped to the ground, and bounded off to vanish underneath the granary.  I suspected he might come out for another look, and after a minute or so he appeared on the west end of the building to find himself about five feet behind one of the rabbits who was sitting in the weeds.  Again, the rabbit appeared not to notice the weasel, though since rabbits have nearly three hundred and sixty degree vision it is quite likely it knew what was going on.  I focused the camera on the rabbit, and waited for whatever might happen.  Which was nothing.  After a few seconds the weasel turned to go under the granary, and the rabbit hopped off through the snow and weeds to my shop thirty yards away.

In the thirty-five years I have lived in this neighborhood I have never been out of sight of one weasel or another.  Which doesn’t mean that I saw them much.  Until this year it was common to see one perhaps two or three dozen times a year, but they likely saw me more often.  In the winter it was hard to go anywhere over the snow without seeing their distinctive tracks, but the critters themselves remained largely out of sight.  The weasel can be said, I suppose, to be an inquisitive animal, but its curiosity is usually short-lived.  Whenever I came across one over the years their interest in me was generally limited to a minute or two before they decided to skedaddle.

There are three kinds of weasels to be found in Montana, one of which, the Least Weasel, I have never seen.  There was a Short-tailed Weasel around a log cabin I lived in over thirty years ago, but aside from him I do not remember how many of his kind I have seen.  Both of these species are close to the southern limits of their range here, and it is the Long-tailed Weasel that I have seen most often over the decades.  That creature can be found from southern Canada, across most of the United States––with the exception of a small area of the Southwest––through Mexico and Central America into South America.  It is the most geographically and ecologically diverse of the three species.  Which means, really, they’re all over the place.

Both the Short-tailed and Long-tailed Weasel turn white in the winter, and in this pelage they are known as ermine.  This change of color is said to be governed by length of daylight, and in certain locations some weasels turn white while other remain brown.  To the north of these areas all weasels are white, and to the south they are brown.  In addition, if a northern weasel is kidnapped and taken south it still turns white in the winter, and similarly a southern weasel transported north remains brown in the winter.  This change of color then is regulated not by  environment, but by inherited characteristics.

ErmineThe ermine pelt has long been cherished by humans.  Native people in North America wore the pelts as decoration, while royalty in Europe wore robes with ermine capes and hoods.  Pope Benedict XVI was recently photographed wearing a scarlet robe trimmed in ermine, and Queen Elizabeth II is often seen in similar attire.  Well, what do you expect the queen to wear?  She can’t show up at a royal event in cutoffs and a halter top.   She’s the queen, after all, and she has to wear clothes befitting her position.  Some of the things she wears are centuries old.  There is even an arcane set of rules in England pertaining to just how many ermine pelts should be used on any given person’s regalia, be they kings, queens, lords or ladies.  Wearing a weasel was all the rage for several hundred years.  Ermine pelts have fallen out of fashion now, along with most other furs, and a recent fur auction in Seattle sold around a thousand weasel pelts at an average price of $5.34.  This is good news to the weasel population because it means that trapping the animal and preparing the skin is not worth the effort.

The weasel has been hated for centuries wherever people kept small domestic animals.  In my neighborhood weasels were routinely killed fifty years ago when every farm had at least a few chickens.  Once a weasel got into a henhouse, for example, it was apt to kill every bird it could get to.  This has earned the weasel a reputation as a wanton killer inspired by an insatiable lust for blood.  It was thought for many years that weasels sucked the blood from their victims, though that has turned out not to be so.  Many animals are prone to killing sprees, and this has long been a source of dismay to humans.  How a species that has invented such a wondrous assortment of strategies to kill all kinds of animals, as well as its own members, can be critical of such behavior in other species has always puzzled me, but it is so.  It is my suspicion that humans are the only creatures that kill just for fun, but even if other animals kill for the thrill they have a long way to go to catch up to the depravity of our own kind.  Mostly folks here didn’t like having chickens around anymore than they did weasels.  Now we buy our eggs and chicken meat at the supermarket, and the weasels are free to come and go as they please.

Why a weasel would kill a couple of dozen domestic chickens is not known.  Some have theorized that the smell of blood drives them into a frenzy, but no one has tested this hypothesis as far as I know.  To be sure, the weasel is a proficient hunter, and if the opportunity arises will kill more than it can eat at any one time, and cache the remains to be used later.  It preys largely on mice and voles, but has been known to take chipmunks, shrews, rats, birds, ground squirrels, tree squirrels, the eggs of ground-nesting birds, and, as I saw for myself a couple of months ago, rabbits.  Most of these creatures are killed singly, but since the weasel’s skinny body allows it to enter underground tunnels of such animals as ground squirrels, it is not unlikely it will kill everything it finds there.  Should this happen close to the time the female gives birth she will take the burrow of her victims as her own, lining the tunnels with the fur of the creatures she has killed and eaten.

Female weasels have a neat tool in their physiological bag called delayed implantation.  Delayed implantation, or Embryonic Diapause, is a reproductive strategy used by a number of creatures ranging from seals and walruses to grizzly bears.  Weasels mate in mid-summer, and development of the fertilized eggs proceeds for a couple of weeks, but implantation in the uterus is then delayed until the following spring, and the embryos remain dormant until that time.    This strategy allows close to a hundred different species of animals to mate at a convenient time, and give birth at an equally convenient time that coincides with conditions most favorable to the survival of the offspring.

Once the eggs are implanted, and the embryos have grown to maturity the female gives birth to an average of four to eight little weasels sometime in April or May.  Six or seven weeks later they are weaned, though they will stay with the mother and her temporary mate for another month or more before all disperse.  The female young are sexually mature at that point, and are frequently bred then by the older male.  The male young are not sexually mature until their second year.

Male Long-tailed Weasels are somewhere between twelve and twenty inches long with a tail about six inches long.  They weigh between four and twelve ounces, and the males are about twice as large as females.  The weasel has often been described as snakelike.  Actually I think the weasel looks like a tube sock with  head and short legs, and it resembles a snake only because it is long and round, but there are some physical and behavioral characteristics that do seem snakelike.  The weasel’s common mode of movement is a bound in which the two front feet land on and leave the ground before the two hind feet land more or less on top of the tracks left by the front feet.  Because the animal’s legs are so short it often appears as if it is slithering through the grass like a snake.  This is especially so when the weasel is bounding through tall grass––for a weasel the grass only has to be a few inches high to be tall grass––or snow.  The weasel’s long body is especially supple, and it uses this flexibility to wrap itself around larger prey such as a rabbit to hold it while it delivers a killing bite to the back of the neck.  Taken all together these physical attributes do make the creature seem snakelike to many people, and the weasel is thought by many to be a sneaky critter.

Lots of animals seem sneaky from the human perspective, and these are generally animals to which we have a special aversion anyway.  Coyotes and wolves are thought to be sneaky, for example.  Horses, on the other hand, are not, but I have owned some horses over the years that were pretty crafty at hiding out in the brush if they did not wish to be caught.  Outfitters who have packed horses in the mountains can talk for hours about hunting for lost horses in the timber.  Turns out the horses weren’t lost at all.  They just didn’t want to be found.  Generally the animals that are thought to be sneaky are predators, but all animals are sneaky if they need to be, and humans are likely the sneakiest of the lot.  If an animal hunts for a living it needs to be sneaky, and if prey animals are to survive long they need to be equally so.  We use the word sneaky as a pejorative description, but sneaky is often a prerequisite to success whether one is a weasel in the woods or a derivatives trader on Wall Street.

Seen from head-on the weasel is cute.  This is due to the fact that the nose and head are foreshortened when viewed from the front, and short noses are generally thought to be cute.  The scientific concept of cuteness was first introduced in the middle of the twentieth century by the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, and cuteness is generally characterized by a combination of infant-like features among which are a largish head compared to body size, big eyes, and a short nose.  It has been proposed that these traits trigger nurturing responses in adults, and studies have shown that humans react more positively to animals that display these cute characteristics than to animals that do not.  I have never heard anyone describe a snake as cute, but a weasel peering at you with its black eyes from a short distance away is.  Viewed from the side, however, standing over a dead rabbit, the weasel looks like the efficient killer that it is.  It all depends on your point of view.

The weasel could be said to possess a sprightly personality, and this is due to its high metabolic rate.  A tubular body which makes for a large surface area from which heat is easily lost, little dense underfur such as is found in many animals in cold climates, and small fat reserves means that the weasel needs a constant supply of food, and this critter is always on the move.  Even when it has killed and eaten its fill it goes on to hunt some more, and caches whatever it might kill for future use.  This, as I mentioned earlier, may be why it would kill an entire chicken coop full of birds.

I used to think that the weasel must have a small territory because it is such a small animal. Everywhere I went I saw weasel tracks, so I figured there must be a lot of weasels.  That made sense to me over the years, but it turns out not to be so.  For many years I have been storing deer and elk bones every hunting season in an old shed on an abandoned homestead about half-a-mile to the west of our place.  Pretty soon I noticed weasel tracks around the outhouse, and knew that at least one weasel was helping itself to the meat that clung to the bones.  There was a weasel around the house then, and I thought there were two weasels, one here, and one up there.  Eventually I noticed that when the weasel was around the house there were no tracks around the shed, and when there were tracks up there I did not see the weasel around the house.  Sometimes there was no weasel tracks here or around the shed, but I found them all over the place in between the two.

I did a little research on Long-tailed Weasels, and though there wasn’t a lot of information about territories, I did discover that in some places the male weasel might range over an area as large as a square mile.  Other studies indicated territories of one-quarter to one-half of a square mile, so it seemed to me that it was likely that one weasel was taking care of the bones in the shed as well as whatever it could come up with around here.  I have no way to prove this, of course, since two male weasels look much the same to me, but I have come to think more highly of my weasel friends.  A square mile of land is a lot of country for these little guys to cover.  On the other hand, like most wild animals they really have nothing else to do.  Covering country is what they do for a living, and they have plenty of energy to get the job done.

Much of the literature about weasels says they use a variety of vocalizations.  I have read that they may screech and squeal, make a trilling sound, and even purr when contented, but I have never heard a peep from any of the weasels I have been around.  They are also noted for releasing a powerful malodorous musk from their anal glands as do many of the members of the Mustelid Family of which weasels are members.  The weasels around here never even smelled like they needed a bath.

My weasel friend will likely hang around the house for a few days now, and then he will be gone.  The bones are gone from the shed now.  I took them out to distribute them to the coyotes, ravens and magpies before the warm weather makes them less agreeable to handle.  There have been no weasel tracks around the shed since.  There are tracks within half-a-mile radius of the house, however, and I suspect the weasel under the granary made them, and will shortly be making more.

Rarely do his tracks proceed in an orderly manner, but instead zig-zag from place to place as he investigates every potential for a meal.  It seems as if he can never decide which way to go, and every little thing is a momentary distraction.  The sets of tracks left by its bounding gait are anywhere from ten to twenty-four inches apart, frequently with long lines between each pair left by the feet dragging in the snow.  These are characteristic of the weasel, and are known as dumbbell or barbell tracks.  From time to time one will notice an untracked expanse of snow several yards long where the weasel appears to have leapt through the air before returning to earth to continue its journey.  Further investigation will reveal a small hole in the snow at the end of one set of tracks and another where the tracks begin again.  The weasel has made like a snow-fish, swimming under the surface for a bit to explore for lord-knows-what.  This is not uncommon behavior.  Perhaps the weasel senses some prey like a mouse or a vole under the snow, and dives below the surface to look for it.

Within a month or so most of the snow will be gone, and the weasel will molt into his summer coat of cinnamon brown with light orange underparts.  As efficient as this animal is as a predator, it is itself a source of nourishment for any number of other hungry hunters from hawks and owls to foxes and coyotes, and the darker pelage will serve as camouflage in the summer habitat.  I will no longer see his tracks wherever I go, but from to time I will see him around the house as he scurries from one old building to another.  Should he decide to leave for parts unknown I will not be able to tell where he has gone as I might in the winter.  He will no longer be a part of daily life around here, but I will be patient.  Within a few short months the snow will fall again, and shortly thereafter I will come across a twisting trail of tiny tracks, and know that a weasel is around.  In the meantime, there will be other creatures to hold my attention.  I went out just before dark, and heard a raucous squawking in the distance.  The big birds are back.  Tomorrow I will take a walk to see if I can find them.




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One Response to “The Queen Wore a Weasel”

  1. Sharon Eversman May 22, 2012 2:29 am #

    Do females change color — or did I miss something in your description? Charming…. Sharon

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