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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

February 1997

Ermine. Photo by Greg Scott, © 1997

Winter weasel watch

A determined ermine will never be bested by a mere red squirrel.

Timothy Sweet

Long-tailed weasels are commonly referred to as "ermine" during their winter phase when their brown coats turn sheer white.

© Greg Scott

My wife couldn't wait to tell me a week or so ago that an old friend had returned to our wetland woods.

She was the one who spotted it in the yard the first time it showed up three years ago. I had just put one of the kids in the bathtub when she called me to come and look out the dining room window at an unusual white animal climbing the trunk of a cedar tree where we had hung out suet for the woodpeckers.

I excitedly informed her that we had a weasel in out back yard. A second later, the doorbell rang. I opened the door, and before the Electrolux salesman could open his mouth and start his pitch, I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into the house saying, "Hey, have you ever seen a weasel before? Neither have we. Come on in."

I firmly believe that watching wildlife improves the quality of life. The stunned vacuum cleaner salesman seemed to agree.

During winter, the ermine or short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea) sheds its dark brown coat and replaces it with an all-white covering, except for a black tip on the tail and a hint of black on the nose. The sleek winter white coat is near-perfect camouflage for life in snow country. The ermine's cold-weather covering is valued highly by trappers, and the black-tipped tails have long been part of the traditional trim on garments worn by kings and queens.

Male ermine are almost twice as large as females, varying in length from 7 to 13 inches. Featherweights of the mammal kingdom, the ermine weighs in at a slight 1 7/8 to 6 3/8 ounces.

Don't let the lack of bulk lead you to believe these weasels get pushed around by other animals in the forest. Ounce for ounce, ermine are probably the most tenacious carnivores around.

I've witnessed our white-coated friend fighting a red squirrel for control of the suet tree. Its quickness and repeated nips to the squirrel's backside clearly left the ermine with the upper hand and the fuller belly.

These little bundles of energy typically hunt on the ground, running along fallen logs, though they are good tree climbers and will even pursue their prey through water. Mice are their main food. After a surprise attack, ermine pounce on their victim with all four feet, biting through the neck near the base of the skull. Other prey include birds, baby rabbits and shrews.

The wooded area behind our house contains dense evergreen brush piles and a number of blown-down cedar trees. It's a maze of tangled roots and branches, ideal ermine habitat. The weasel also digs tunnels in the snow to escape danger.

Den sites are usually situated beneath logs, stumps, roots, brush piles or stone walls, and have several entrances. Concealed within the den is a nest of plant material and hair. Ermine mate in July and give birth to four to nine babies the following spring.

Since the return of our back yard visitor, members of our family have taken frequent watch duty, hoping to catch a glimpse of the white-coated ermine – an animal sought after by kings, queens, trappers, wildlife watchers and the occasional vacuum cleaner salesman.

When he's not vacuuming the living room, Timothy Sweet watches weasels from his home in Clintonville.