Blane Klemek: The feisty weasel is a joy to watch in nature
I’ve often made the joke about our good fortune of being the size we are and that weasels are the size they are. Because if weasels were the size of Labrador retrievers, we’d be in grave danger every time we stepped into the woods. No carnivore that I know of is more voracious and swift a predator than members of this group of mammals, especially weasels themselves.
Almost every year at my Kittson County Deer Camp, for example, an individual weasel entertains our encampment with its antics and astonishing boldness. Fearless little rascals they are, and no doubt driven by an unending and insatiable need to eat, our annual mascots bring laughter to our hunting party as we watch them search for scraps of food. Every cavity, every compartment, and every miscellaneous anything is searched, sniffed, and tasted by these inquisitive creatures.
One of my favorite weasel stories that I like to tell happened on a deer hunt in snow-filled December woodland more than 20 years ago, when I observed something I’ll never forget. I was alone, still-hunting, walking as slowly and quietly as humanly possible while stopping often to watch and listen. Leaning against the cold gray bark of a solid old bur oak tree, I noticed something moving out of the corner of my right eye. Turning my head, I was surprised by the unusual sight of a small dark mammal rolling, like a glass jar across a tabletop, down the steep side of snowdrift.
When the animal came to a stop no more than ten feet from me, I stared incredulously at its lifeless form. I recognized it as a star-nosed mole. And the reason for its unlikely stunt, the apparent frolic tumble on the snow, was right there before me — and he wasn’t happy.
Practically invisible against the snowy environment, I hadn’t noticed him immediately. But just before he opened his mouth, letting go of his meal, the snow-white little weasel stood his ground defiantly, daring me if you will, to try and take his prize. Perhaps I blinked, I don’t know, but I remember very clearly that his small and beady black eyes didn’t blink, and the next thing I observed was his streaking invisible body dashing straight to the mole.
In a most fluid motion, the weasel scooped the over-sized and plump prey tightly into his canines and scurried twelve feet up the side of a snag tree and into a hole he obviously knew about and back out in the next blinding second. I was dumbfounded, and I actually think he knew it. One quick and unimpressed glance later, the little fellow was gone — probably on another hunt and satisfied that his prey was safely cached and out of my reach.
The feisty weasel is a joy to watch, and in the case of my run-in with the above weasel, fearless. There are three species of weasels that live in Minnesota: short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), and the smallest carnivore in the world, the least weasel (Mustela nivalis). In their northern range, weasels are the only members of the family that turns white in the winter. Other members of the weasel family include fisher, marten, badger, mink, otter, and wolverine.
In autumn, white hairs replace their brown summer coat. The weasel then becomes pure white except for its black-tipped tail. Would-be predators like owls may focus on the black spot when attacking, which sometimes causes them to miss capturing the weasel all together. That is if the weasel remains still long enough for it to get captured.
The long, tube-shaped body and short legs gives the weasel a kind of “wiener dog” appearance. Weasels evolved to enter nearly any hole or burrow as they search for such prey as rabbits and hares, moles, small rodents, birds, snakes, frogs, and insects. Like most members of the weasel family, weasels are very active. They hunt constantly while using their keen senses of smell and hearing to locate their prey. When hunting, weasels don’t let any nook or cranny go unchecked. They will disappear into a hole in a log and pop out seconds later somewhere else.
I’ve been lucky enough to observe numerous weasels, typically short-tailed weasels, busily hunting unconcernedly except for finding and procuring food. A tireless and relentless hunter, woe is the small rodent or other prey trying to elude a weasel. Extremely fast, cunning, and intelligent, he is a formidable foe for sure.
Indeed, as one anonymous poet so rightly wrote:
“Oh Weasel thou art small and lean
And forever thou we chase
With hound and cat and
But thou escape
with fiendish grace
A skip! A scamp!
A devil¹s beast!
A terror in the hole.
And so alike
as to a ferret
That the difference ne’er at all.”
Weasels are fascinating animals. Nearly constantly active, common, yet rarely observed, the little hunters are alive and well. In the coming weeks their white winter coats will change to shiny brown jackets while they continue to exist just under our noses. But they’re there all right; small furry packages for us to view and wonder about as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@ yahoo.com.