I often see weasel tracks in the snow, but rarely see a weasel. Late winter, 2011 proved to be a very different and enlightening experience. In early March, my wife saw something white scurrying behind an entertainment center and was soon face to face with a weasel. I’m not sure who was more startled, but she said “shooo!” and it raced into an adjacent room and disappeared, presumably into an enclosed, deactivated fireplace. I promised to investigate and remedy the situation, while secretly hoping for an extended visit and photos. The next day I was reading near the fireplace escape route when the weasel appeared on the hearth a few feet in front of me. My first close encounter with a weasel! We studied one another intently, both wondering what to do next. It showed little fear or concern over my presence, behaving much like a surprised deer standing upwind and inching closer to satisfy its curiosity. Eventually the weasel, ivory white with a black-tipped tail and some dark facial markings, disappeared into the old fireplace, affording me an opportunity to fetch my point and shoot camera. I assumed the game was over but returned, camera in hand. There it was, again, still curious and unafraid.
I liked the idea of having an honest mouser around, and did everything possible to convince my wife of this valuable attribute of weasels. I told of how the folks at the local feed mill love having a weasel around to mouse while the resident cat sleeps beside the cash register; how weasels were welcomed in the old logging camps for the same reason; how they must consume up to a third of their body weight in food per day (that’s a lot of varmints); and so on. I lost. That night I begrudgingly set a live trap, door wired open in test mode, and baited it with a small piece of raw meat. The next morning the meat was gone. I reset the trap and by mid-morning had live-trapped my first weasel. It wasn’t at all what I expected. I’ve live-trapped and handled hundreds of mice, voles, chipmunks and squirrels. Some of these animals can get pretty testy when trapped and I expected the weasel to redefine testy for me. On the contrary, this lovely little carnivore, known to be an aggressive and fearless predator that dispatches its prey by biting into the base of the skull, was just the opposite. Its demeanor seemed unchanged from the day before, still docile and curious, even in confinement.
Before completing my first weasel trap-and-transfer program, I had to collect some data. The weasel was more or less the length of the live trap – about 15 inches. The head and body combined were about 10 inches, the tail about half of that. This might seem trivial, but two similar species of weasels occur in this region. Their physical dimensions are important in telling them apart, especially in winter when both are white with a black-tipped tail. The Long-tailed Weasel, our largest native weasel, is 12-18 inches long, head to tail. The tail itself is roughly 4-6 inches long. The Ermine is somewhat smaller, about 8-12 inches total length, with a 2-3 inch tail. In summer the Ermine has white on its feet, the Long-tailed weasel doesn’t.
The wide range in values for the weasel dimensions reflects the fact that males are much larger than females, which confounds the identification challenge. In any event, I decided that I was looking at a Long-tailed Weasel.
I covered the live trap with a burlap sack to reduce handling/transport stress and released the weasel at the far end of our 30 acre property. Having done my homework, I was well aware of the 25-100 acre home range of weasels and realized that this trap-and-transfer might fail (hopefully giving rise to more photos).
That night I again wired the trap open in test mode and placed a chunk of raw meat inside. Of course the meat was gone the next morning. I reset the trap and by late morning had a weasel. Was it the same one? Not sure. This time my little friend and I traveled about 4 miles north, to the edge of a 700 acre cedar swamp. When released, It sprinted 100 feet or so, then climbed 20 feet up into a hemlock tree, showing squirrel-like climbing skills. I’m sure that, from its elevated vantage point, it was orienting itself and taking a bearing on the old fireplace hideout with an ample supply of raw meat that lie 4 miles to the south.
All photos by NB Hunter