Weasels lead short, productive lives

  • By Sharon Wootton Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, September 11, 2013 4:33pm
  • Life

Beady little black eyes but otherwise cute. Curious. Can climb trees. Good swimmer. Ambush-and-pounce method usually used when attacking prey. Short life. Promiscuous. Strong musk odor when alarmed. Mostly nocturnal hunters. Furry. Solitary.

Welcome to Weasel World. Or in the case of the short-tailed weasel recently found in Lake Stevens, the world of road kill.

The long-tailed weasel is larger with a longer tail, and the least weasel smaller with a short tail without the black tip of the short-tailed weasel.

Look for a long body with short legs, a long neck, round ears and long whiskers.

While weasels (also called ermine or stoat) are found in most of North America, the Olympic short-tailed weasel is endemic to the Olympic Peninsula. The biggest difference is that they do not turn white when winter approaches.

The Olympic short-tailed weasel lives from lowland forests to the subalpine zone, but are most often found near water next to open habitats, as are the other two species.

Weasels are in the same family as ferrets, minks, otters, skunks and badgers.

All weasels are carnivores, and they are found statewide except for the Columbia Basin. Their menu leans to small rodents, especially voles.

They can catch snowshoe hares and rabbits, but mostly focus on voles, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, birds and their eggs, insects, earthworms and berries, with some carrion as a side dish.

They can track prey by following scent trails. Death is quick, teeth piercing the base of the skull.

The hunter can also be the prey of other hunters: hawks, coyotes, dogs, owls, martens and the like. And humans who trap them for their high-quality fur, once reserved for European royalty.

A weasel’s slender shape is ideal for slipping into nests and burrows searching for prey or a hideout. Dens sometimes are about a half-foot underground with escape routes.

The males are larger than females of the same age. They’re generally 7- to 12-inches long and weigh up to 7 ounces.

A short life span dictates a quick growth to sexual maturity, in the females’ case, as early as three months. The young can hunt by themselves around seven weeks.

The short-tailed weasel is dark brown on the back and legs, with white or light yellow on the chin, throat and undersides of the legs. It’s entirely white in the winter, although the tail tip remains black.

Theory goes that when an animal chases the weasel, it might chase the black tip and miss the weasel. As far as the nursery rhyme “Pop Goes the Weasel,” check out www.rhymes.org.uk for its Cockney origin and lyrics.

Too much sunshine? We don’t think of whales as getting a suntan, but the latest research says that some species do get darker with sun exposure, and that there is damage to the skin cells, as with humans.

The story in Nature magazine reported that the research was a response to increased reports of blistered skin of whales along the coast of Mexico. Studying the whales may reflect what’s happening in their environment.

One researcher called the blue, sperm and fin whales “the UV barometers of the sea.”

On the bookshelf: Backyard landlords can learn much from Bill Thompson III’s “Bird Houses and Habitats” ($15).

There’s a section about the top 10 tips for landlords, including put the right box in the right place, and make sure it has the right hole.

While that may seem like a no-brainer, you’d be surprised …

He adds the top 10 problems inside the nest box, including hostile takeover, eggs pierced or smashed, and dead nestlings.

Thompson has a chapter profiling cavity nesters and one on the Birdy Backyard All-Stars, as well as nest box plans and instructions

As usual, Thompson’s writing is clear and to the point, and the color photographs are excellent.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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