The Weasel – Tiny Warrior with Inexhaustible Concentration

The Weasel – Tiny Warrior with Inexhaustible Concentration

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

I stood still as the weasel rippled, white and lustrous, through the stone wall. Six feet away, a deer mouse whose footfalls must have aroused the weasel, cowered against a tussock of grass. Suddenly the mouse burst to the right, then froze. Stung by the sound, the weasel hit the ground in a dead run. She held the mouse’s convoluted trail with her nose to the earth like a bloodhound, twice passing within inches of the mouse itself. But the mouse never flinched, and the weasel pressed on.

As the weasel finally closed in, the mouse bolted. Simultaneously, the weasel screeched and continued the pursuit, a tiny warrior with inexhaustible concentration. They darted across a mat of leaves, across a shag of fern, along a length of fallen elm limb. Both animals merged in a blur, the weasel furiously kicking and scratching and wrapping snakelike around the helpless mouse. When teeth met skull, all struggling ceased, and the weasel, with prey in mouth, disappeared back into the stone wall.

There are three weasel species in North America, two of which live hereabouts – the long-tailed, and the smaller short-tailed, or ermine. Collectively, they are quintessential mouse predators, sometimes following their prey into rural homes. I have live-trapped weasels behind a refrigerator in Norwich, Vermont, a stove in West Hartford, Vermont, and a furnace in Enfield, New Hampshire. In St. Johnsbury, Vermont, during the winter of 1987, several residents reported ermines in their homes. The fall of 1985 had produced a bumper crop of acorns and beechnuts and seeds. And after the high production of nutritious food, there followed a high production of nutritious mice. When the mouse population is up, more weasels survive the winter. Since a weasel can go anywhere a mouse can go, if snow forces mice inside, hungry weasels will follow.

One St. Johnsbury man caught an ermine in his living room and released it on the hill behind his house. The next night it was back. He reset the trap, and re-caught the weasel. This happened again and again. Eventually, he drove the weasel six miles away and released it. That night, the man again caught a weasel. He was sure it was the same one he had released. Of course no one else believed him – a small mammal only twelve inches long surely cannot cover six miles in a single night, past a corner of St. Johnsbury, past owls and cats and fishers (which eat weasels), and past cars (which flatten them). The man was not convinced, so the next night he caught the weasel and marked it with a spot of green nail polish and again released it six miles from home. In the morning he checked his trap and found a weasel – ermine white with a black-tipped tail, and a green spot on its rump. Finally he drove the weasel twelve miles away and set it free. Although the record for the longest distance traveled by a short-tailed weasel is 21.6 miles, that record trip required seven months. The St. Johnsbury weasel did not return.

Of the three species of North American weasels, the long-tailed is the largest. Males are 18 inches long, including a six-and-a-half-inch tail, and weigh about eight ounces. Females are four inches shorter and less than half the weight. Besides leopards in the Old World, mountain lions in the New World, and man in both worlds, long-tailed weasels have the most extensive north-south distribution of any wild mammal. From southern Canada to Peru, they pursue rats, mice, squirrels, gophers, rabbits, and sometimes day-old piglets.

Short-tailed weasels, which are much more common in our area, are circumpolar, ranging throughout northern Eurasia, where they’re called stoats, and Canada, south into the northern tier states, and west into the mountains. In both species of weasel, decreasing daylight triggers the autumn molt. The timing, however, is seldom precise and varies between species, within species, and even from year to year for the same individual. As nights grow longer, days shorter, and the maples begin to blush, the diminished light falling on a weasel’s eyes cause the pituitary gland – the body’s master chemist – to signal the pineal gland. In most northern weasels, the pineal gland secrets melatonin, which alerts the central nervous system to stop the production of melanin, a dark pigment found in hair follicles. Thus, new hairs turn white.

I stood by the stone wall in the moonlight and squeaked for the weasel, hoping it would put the mouse aside and investigate the new sound, for weasels are intensely curious. This weasel never fell for my ruse – it had already left the area. A neat set of paired footprints showed that it had bounded away, the mouse in its mouth scraping the snow on either side of the weasel’s head.

Ted Levin is a naturalist and freelance writer living in Thetford Center, VT.

  1. Natalya
    Oct 12, 2016

    Are weasels known to eat poultry? My heart is broken - all of my 21 quails were massacred overnight. I kept my quail in the cage and this morning I discovered one side of the chicken wire was ripped off and half of the quail are missing and the rest are dead. We live in the city and I never saw one within the city limits.

  2. Elise Tillinghast
    Oct 14, 2016

    Hi Natalya, I’m so sorry to hear about your birds. Yes, weasels will kill poultry though I don’t know if that was your perpetrator. I know this will come as cold comfort, but there are at least a couple possible reasons for these types of massacres, that have to do with predatory impulses in a setting weasels don’t naturally encounter (chicken yard). I encourage you to check out the comments section of “Weasel Evil Knievels” if you want more information on that.

  3. Dick Harlow
    Nov 14, 2018

    I just caught a quick glimpse of a weasel carrying quickly a Meadow Vole into a hole under a large planting container. The past two years we have had a good population of Meadow Voles, seen mostly in the late fall and winter. This year, however, the population of Meadow Voles and a family of Chipmunks have disappeared. Since the weasel was small, estimated to be about 8-10 inches,  long and brown which weasel could I have witnessed?

  4. Elise Tillinghast
    Nov 15, 2018

    Hi Dick - lucky you to have that wildlife sighting! What you saw was almost certainly a long- or short-tailed weasel, but their sizes overlap based on gender, their markings are pretty much identical, and the difference in tail length isn’t as obvious as the name implies! Both species are brown and summer, and most (not all) individuals grow white winter coats.

  5. Sandie baez
    Feb 28, 2019

    Hi , I’ve had a long tailed weasel living in my house for the last two months. Three weeks ago he was almost completely white, last night he had a brown stripe down his back so he must be getting his summer coat. We live in the country so we get a lot of field mice and we had even more last summer. Wesley (the weasel) seems to be taking care of that problem so I’m letting him hang out for the winter. I managed to shoot a 2 minute video of him last night when I realized he was in my bedroom with me and the door was closed. I let him out after he hid under my dresser. I called the local nature center, but they won’t take him. Not really sure what to do with him. Any ideas??

  6. Elise Tillinghast
    Mar 04, 2019

    Sandie - I know you’re asking for serious advice…but what a fun post. Have you considered a Havahart trap? You can find information on their website, and it seems to me that simply releasing the animal outside might work? Of course, you’d want to make sure that you only set the trap up at a time when you could frequently check on it, especially as weasels starve quickly. If there’s a nearby stone wall with natural crevices, that would be a good place to release it.

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