Minnesota Outdoors: Weasels are constantly active, rarely resting
Weasels are a joy to observe. Lucky we are that three species of weasels live here 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 that occur in Minnesota include fisher, pine marten, mink, badger, and river otter.
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, all weasels are formidable foes for sure.
Long-tailed weasels, the largest weasel of the three, occur throughout the continent, including Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. This weasel can be as long as 14” from nose to the tip of its tail, which is roughly twice as long as the least weasel. Even so, size lacking, all weasels are proficient predators of a wide variety of prey both smaller and larger than they.
Last October while elk hunting in the Colorado Rockies, I decided to rest for a spell within a wide aspen-dominated mountain draw interspersed with spruce, Douglas fir, and other conifers. Sitting on my foam pad on the snow-covered ground while leaning against a young spruce and waiting for game, I noticed a movement of a small animal amongst scattered logs strewn before me.
Immediately recognizing it as a long-tailed weasel, mostly white in color, I could tell that the weasel was actively hunting. Hopping atop a log, down on the ground, into a hollow log, underneath a log, back on top, and so on, is the typical hunting style of a weasel.
At one point the weasel momentarily disappeared underneath or inside a log, but in the next instant the weasel reappeared with a freshly killed vole clutched tightly in its jaws. Looking this way and that, the weasel began hopping closer to me evidently unaware I was sitting in its hunting territory.
When only a few feet from my outstretch legs and boots, the weasel suddenly noticed me and promptly dropped the vole. Darting a few yards away, it stopped to examine me as I sat motionless and waiting for the weasel’s next move. As though unsure what to do next, the weasel finally made its decisive move.
Making a large circle around me while constantly looking my way, the weasel eventually returned to where it dropped its meal, picked it up with its sharp teeth, and quickly carried the dead vole away until it reached a hiding spot—a hollow log. Entering the log, the weasel exited out of a different hole without the vole, glanced back at me, and resumed its hunt elsewhere.
Weasels are interesting, widespread mammals. Constantly active, rarely resting, common, yet seldom observed, these little carnivores are never far away from where we live.
In the coming weeks their white winter coats will change to shiny brown summer coats while they go about their business of living, hunting, and raising offspring as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.