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Weasels are furry and fearless

Many autumns ago, in fact it was September 1984 to be precise, I was enjoying a ruffed grouse hunt along a wooded trail near the Rainy River upstream from International Falls. I was lucky enough to have a bird in my game pouch. On my stroll back to the car, I decided to stop along the trail in order to field-dress my bird.

When I tossed the inedible remains of the grouse a few yards off the trail into the brush, a portion of the bird - the tail and carcass - caught onto a shrub. I looked at it, thought about removing it from the branches, but decided I'd leave it. Some animal would surely come along and make use of it.

That evening I returned for a deer hunt with my bow. I hunted until dark, climbed down from my tree stand and picked my way through the brush to the trail. By the time I reached the trail, I had turned the flashlight on to light my way along the same route that I had earlier in the day field-dressed the grouse.

As I walked quietly in the darkness, I stopped suddenly when something a short distance ahead of me made a noise. Using my flashlight, I panned the area to find whatever was making the commotion. I immediately spotted in the beam of my light a short-tailed weasel half-way up into a clump of brush. Just above the animal were the remains of my grouse.

I watched in amazement as the fearless little mammal grasped the grouse carcass with its teeth and began to pull the bird from the tangled branches of the shrub. Even as I approached to within a couple of feet, the tiny carnivore did not give up until it had succeeded in yanking the unruly carcass of bone and feathers free.

Once the weasel had the carcass on the ground, it clutched the ball of feathers in its mouth and hurried off - hopping and tripping and making as much noise on the forest floor as an animal 10 times larger.

Indeed, 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, long-tailed weasel and the smallest carnivore in the world, the least weasel.

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 the fisher, pine 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 sometimes focus on the black spot when attacking a weasel, thereby causing them to sometimes miss capturing the weasel all together.

The long, tube-shaped body and short legs gives the weasel a kind of "wiener dog" appearance. Weasels evolved this body design in order to enter nearly any hole or burrow as they search for such prey as rabbits and hares, moles, small rodents like mice, voles and shrews, as well as 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 while appearing unconcerned of anything else 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, weasels are formidable foes indeed.

Not long ago, on another autumn deer hunt, I watched from the comfortable perch of a tree the goings on of a weasel hunting within the tall grasses and woody debris of a recently harvested woodland. Visible one moment and gone the next, I observed the tiny, white-coated carnivore for at least 15 minutes.

No stone, so to speak, was left unturned by the weasel. Every hole in every log was looked or crawled into, every brush-pile was climbed or searched, and every rodent's grass-tunnel was run. Finally, after seeing only bits and pieces of the darting animal here and there, I heard a loud squeal and tussle from somewhere deep in the grass. Seconds later the weasel reappeared with a vole seized securely in its mouth and teeth. Supper at last.

Weasels are fascinating animals. A nearly constantly active and common mammal, yet, surprisingly, rarely observed, the little hunters are alive and well in Minnesota's fields and forests.

As invisible during the summer and fall in their brown coats as they are in the wintertime in their coats of white, weasels go virtually unnoticed in the wild. But they're there all right - small furry and fearless creatures for us to search for as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at