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Weasels are only doing their job
Country Today ^ | 12-9-03

Posted on 12/08/2003 4:02:40 PM PST by SJackson

On a recent canoe trip down the river, just before the landscape was covered with snow, we were treated to a brief glimpse of one of the fastest critters in the Northwoods: the short-tailed weasel, or ermine.

We might not have noticed it at all, if it hadn't already been wearing its white winter coat, which stood out among the brown leaves and leafless brush along the shore. That elegant white coat is called "ermine" in the fur trade, long the fur of choice for the collars of royal robes - reflecting, probably, the difficulty in obtaining them.

Spurred by changes in day length and light intensity, its hormones had made the switch into winter camouflage a bit early, spoiling its advantage as a predator and exposing it as prey for larger mammals, hawks and owls. But this weasel didn't seem bothered by the fact that it stood out like a bouncing white ball as it hunted along the shore. It went about its business, investigating every burrow, running headlong, nose to the ground, along trails and branches.

To nature lovers like us, it was a rare treat, but weasels have a bad reputation among people who don't see their place in the web of life. In children's literature, cartoons and the old Disney "nature documentary" movies that I saw as a boy, weasels get a universally bad rap.

For example, in Ken Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, it's a gang of weasels who take over Toad Hall, trashing the place and eating and drinking everything in sight. In other books, including once-respected nature guides, they are described as "blood-thirsty" or "blood-sucking" or "ravenous."

One writer described seeing a weasel lock its jaws on the throat of a ruffed grouse and hang on as the bird took flight - which I doubt is even physically possible for a 1-pound bird and 7-ounce weasel.

Others have said a weasel will work its way through a chicken coop, methodically killing every bird it can catch and laying them out like an animal mortician. This anti-weasel attitude has crept into our vocabulary. In the criminal world, the term "weasel" means a squealer, the lowest of the low; "weasel words" are loopholes in contracts that lawyers can drive a lawsuit through; and "weaseling" means squirming out of a tight situation, by any means.

Of course, weasels are carnivores and predators -extremely efficient ones. They are perfectly equipped for the job, with a long (10-inch), narrow, muscular body that can work its way down burrows, a keen sense of smell, lightning-fast reaction times, sharp canine teeth and claws and an instinctive drive to chase running prey.

It's difficult for many people to admire such seemingly ruthless efficiency, but weasels can't make it through the winter on handouts. They have to earn their living, just like the rest of us. They do it by eating more than 40 percent of their body weight daily, catching rodents, rabbits, birds, earthworms and feeding on "fresh" carrion.

Some say weasels and ferrets make excellent pets, while others say they can't be trusted around small children. In captivity, they have been known to live 10 years, but it's doubtful many live that long in the wild, especially when they are exposed by the late arrival of snow.

One advantage they still enjoy is that the tip of their tail and their nose stay black all winter, which confuses predators who attack the wrong end, giving the weasel a chance for evasive maneuvers.

Weasels belong to the family mustelidae, which includes 65 species of ferrets, martens, minks, skunks, fishers, otters, badgers and wolverines. We have three species in Wisconsin - long-tailed, short-tailed and least weasels. The earliest mustelids appeared during the early Oligocene Epoch, roughly 35 million years ago, and their descendants live in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North and South America.

The smallest mustelid is the least weasel, weighing 1.2 to 2.4 ounces; the biggest is the South American giant otter, weighing 60 to 90 pounds.

Mustelids have well-developed anal scent glands which produce a potent repellent smell - which, as we all know, is most developed in the skunks.

Kevin Hagen can be contacted about "Nature of Things" column topics at N4598 Beaver Pond Lane, Spooner, WI 54801; by phone at (715) 635-5190; or by e-mail at

KEYWORDS: weaselyclark

1 posted on 12/08/2003 4:02:40 PM PST by SJackson
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To: SJackson
I thought this was going to be an article about the Rat candidates
2 posted on 12/08/2003 4:17:55 PM PST by freedomlover
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