All About Weasels!

Welcome to the “all about weasels” page!

Weasel eating a chipmunk (Guelph Lake Nature Centre, June 2011)

Weasel eating a chipmunk (Guelph Lake Nature Centre, June 2011)

Weasels
Weasel comes from the Sanskrit word visra which means to have a musty smell.
Mustela means “one who carries off mice”

Who knew?
It is rumoured that weasels have a “war dance”, though I personally have not seen nor read much about it. This war dance may be a way to confuse or disorient prey before the weasel attacks. The mesmerizing weasel “war dance” may also be a form of celebration, performed by weasels after fighting with other animals or acquiring food from competitors. A weasel’s white winter coat camouflages well with snowy surroundings. In addition to white fur, Long and Short-Tailed Weasels also have a black-tipped tail. This black-tipped tail distracts raptors, causing them to attack just behind a fleeing weasel instead of landing right on top of it. A group of weasels is called a Boogle, a Gang, a Pack, or a Confusion.

War Dance Clip:

Tracks
Weasel paws are small and hairy with five toes. The inside fifth toe does not often register in its track.

Short-Tailed Weasel Tracks (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

Short-Tailed Weasel Tracks (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

Trail Width
Most animals narrow their trail as they increase their speed. A weasel trail width that is consistently under 1 ¾ inches belongs to Short-Tailed Weasels while weasel trails that are consistently over 2 inches wide belong to Long-Tailed Weasels. Trails that are under 1 ⅛ inches wide are most likely from a Least Weasel.

Gait
Weasels have a 2-2 trail pattern with one track slightly ahead of the other as the animal moves along. The body stretches out, the front feet come down, registering and as the front feet leave the ground, the hind feet come in immediately after, falling on the same set of tracks, or just behind.

Weasel Tracks (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, 2014)

Weasel Tracks (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, 2014)

Trail Pattern
In the snow, a foraging weasel often leaves a distinctive zigzagging trail, showing that it has inspected every burrow and hole that it has encountered.

Trail patterns give more clues about different weasel species. Often there will be drag marks connecting two prints in a short bound, leaving what trackers call a dumbbell pattern: two dots, a dash, and two dots. This pattern is more typical of a Short-Tailed weasel. Some of the weasel’s long bounds can be up to 35 inches long and there will be no drag marks between them. These patterns are created by a very energetic, curious mammal that is distracted by everything in its environment.

Short-Tailed Weasel Stride (Dumbbell Pattern), Bruce Trail,Orangeville, December, 2014)

Short-Tailed Weasel Stride (Dumbbell Pattern), Bruce Trail,Orangeville, December, 2014)

Long tailed weasels show inconsistent bounding patterns, e.g. one long, three short, one long, two short, one long, three short, one long, three short, two long. The trail pattern is often very erratic.
Short-tailed weasels show more consistent bounding patterns, e.g. one long, one short, one long, one short.

Scat and Scent Marks
Weasel scat is very small, rarely exceeding ⅛ of an inch in diameter and 1 ¼ inches in length. Weasel scat is often found on stone walls or on objects in trails. The scat is tightly wound, looking as though it has been twisted like a rope and it contains fur. Weasels do not normally eat berries so if you find weasel-like scat containing seeds, it is probably that of a marten. The entrances to the burrows of Long-Tailed weasels and Short-Tailed weasels often have large latrines of scats to one side.

Long-Tailed Weasel Scat (Guelph Lake, October, 2014)

Long-Tailed Weasel Scat (Photo by Ann Schletz, Guelph Lake, October, 2014)

Weasels also leave scent marks on their trail. Scent marks are made when a weasel splays their hind legs and drags their anal glands on the ground after defecating. When weasels are very afraid, the anal glands open up and release a cloud of scent or a “stink bomb”.

Weasel Scat (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

Least Weasel Scat (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

Den Sites
The nests of most weasels are in the burrows of their prey. Nests can be found in protected cavities such as hollow trees and rock piles. Tunnels that radiate from a nest are often used as latrines and food caches.

Short-Tailed Weasel Hole (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

Short-Tailed Weasel Hole (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December 2014)

Distribution
In favourable conditions there can be 25 Least Weasels, 8 Short-Tailed Weasels and 6 Long-Tailed Weasels for every km².

Habitat
Least and Long-tailed weasels may share some of the same wetland habitats, and both can be found in open woodlands or along field edges. You are less likely to find Short-Tailed weasels in wetland areas. They prefer more upland-type habitats, including meadows, woodlands and mountains up to thirteen thousand feet. Short-Tailed weasels also tend to avoid thick coniferous forests. (Rezendes, Tracking and the Art of Seeing, page 113).

Habits
The weasel’s body is designed to hunt and pursue prey in small, tight spaces. Weasels hunt by investigating the nooks and crannies where their prey is likely to hide. Weasels often hunt in tunnels. Weasels are active day and night. They prefer dim light and their activity often peaks at dusk.

Diet
Voles and Mice make up 50 -80% of a weasel’s diet. Weasels also eat other small mammals, birds, eggs, fish, snakes, lizards, frogs, beetles, grasshoppers, earthworms and carrion. Weasels cache excess food and carcasses similar to the way a red squirrel caches cones. This is called “surplus killings”. When weasels eat their prey, they start with the head and brain, move on to the internal organs, and finally eat the muscular flesh. Weasels will kill poultry at times when rodents are scarce. It is suggested that they may also eat berries and juniper fruits when their preferred prey is unavailable.

Remains of a Weasel Kill (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December, 2014)

Remains of a Weasel Kill (Bruce Trail, Orangeville, December, 2014)

Predators
Predators of weasels include; coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, eagles, snakes, domestic dogs, cats, humans and even other weasels.

References
Alexis Burnett, Earth Tracks Apprenticeship Program
Rezendes, P. 1999, Tracking and the Art of Seeing, HarperCollins Publishers, New York.
Elbroch, M. & Rinehart K. 2011, Behavior of North American Mammals, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, NY.
Reid, F. A., 2006, Mammals of North America, Houghton Mifflin Company, NY.
Eder, T., 2002, Mammals of Ontario, Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, AB.
Sheldon, I. Animal Tracks of Ontario, Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, AB.

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