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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/April 1878/The Wicked Weasel

THE WICKED WEASEL.

THERE are other enemies of game-life besides human poachers whose numbers must be kept within bounds to insure successful sport. The thirst of the weasel for blood is insatiable, and it is curious to watch the persistency with which he will hunt down the particular rabbit he has singled out for destruction. Through the winding subterranean galleries of the "buries" with their cross-passages, "blind" holes and "pop" holes (i. e., those which end in undisturbed soil, and those which are simply bored from one side of the bank to the other, being only used for temporary concealment), never once in the dark, close caverns losing sight or scent of his victim, he pursues it with a species of eager patience. It is generally a long chase. The rabbit makes a dash ahead, and a double or two, and then halts, usually at the mouth of a hole; perhaps to breathe. By-and-by the weasel, baffled for a few minutes, comes up behind. Instantly the rabbit slips over the bank outside and down the ditch for a dozen yards, and there enters the "bury" again. The weasel follows, gliding up the bank with a motion not unlike that of the snake; for his body and neck are long and slender, and his legs short. Apparently he is not in haste, but rather lingers over the scent. This is repeated five or six times, till the whole length of the hedgerow has been traversed—sometimes up and down again. The chase may be easily observed by any one who will keep a little in the background. Although the bank be tenanted by fifty other rabbits, past whose hiding-place the weasel must go, yet they scarcely take any notice. One or two, whom he has approached too closely, bolt out and in again; but as a mass the furry population remain quiet, as if perfectly aware that they are not yet marked out for slaughter. At last, having exhausted the resources of the bank, the rabbit rushes across the field to a hedgerow, perhaps a hundred yards away. Here the wretched creature seems to find a difficulty in obtaining admittance. Hardly has he disappeared in a hole before he comes out again, as if the inhabitants of the place refused to give him shelter. For many animals have a strong tribal feeling, and their sympathy, like that of man in a savage state, is confined within their special settlement. With birds it is the same; rooks, for instance, will not allow a strange pair to build in their trees, but drive them off with relentless beak, tearing down the half-formed nest, and taking the materials to their own use. The sentiment, "If Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, what good shall my life do me?" appears to animate the breasts of gregarious creatures of this kind. Rooks intermarry generation after generation; and if a black lover brings home a foreign bride, they are forced to build in a tree at some distance. Near large rookeries several such outlying colonies may be seen.

The rabbit, failing to find a cover, hides in the grass and dry rushes; but across the meadow, stealing along the furrow, comes the weasel; and, shift his place how he may, in the end, worn out and weary, bunny succumbs, and the sharp teeth meet in the neck behind the ear, severing the vein. Ofter in the end the rabbit runs to earth in a hole which is a cul-de-sac, with his back toward the pursuer. The weasel, unable to get at the poll, which is his desire, will mangle the hinder parts in a terrible manner—as will the civilized ferret under similar conditions. Now and then the rabbit, scratching and struggling, fills the hole in the rear with earth, and so at the last moment chokes off his assailant and finds safety almost in the death agony. In the woods, once the rabbit is away from the "buries," the chase really does resemble a hunt; from furze-bush to bracken, from fern to rough grass, round and round, backward, doubling, to and fro, and all in vain. At such times, eager for blood, the weasel will run right across your path, almost close enough to be kicked. Pursue him in turn, and if there be no hedge or hole near, if you have him in the open, he will dart hither and thither right between your legs, uttering a sharp, short note of anger and alarm, something composed of a tiny bark and a scream. He is easily killed with a stick when you catch him in the open, for he is by no means swift; but if a hedge be near it is impossible to secure him.

Weasels frequently hunt in couples, and sometimes more than two will work together. We once saw five, and have heard of eight. The five we saw were working a sandy bank drilled with holes, from which the rabbits in wild alarm were darting in all directions. The weasels raced from hole to hole and along the sides of the bank exactly like a pack of hounds, and seemed intensely excited. Their manner of hunting resembles the motions of ants; these insects run a little way very swiftly, then stop, turn to the right or left, make a short détour, and afterward on again in a straight line. So the pack of weasels darted forward, stopped, went from side to side, and then on a yard or two, and repeated the process. To see their reddish heads thrust for a moment from the holes, then withdrawn to reappear at another, would have been amusing had it not been for the reflection that their frisky tricks would assuredly end in death. They ran their quarry out of the bank and into a wood, where we lost sight of them. The pack of eight was seen by a laborer returning down a woodland lane from work one afternoon. He told us he got in the ditch, half from curiosity to watch them, and half from fear—laughable as that may seem—for he had heard the old people tell stories of men in the days when the corn was kept for years in barns, and so bred hundreds of rats, being attacked by those vicious brutes. He said they made a noise, crying to each other—short, sharp, snappy sounds; but the pack of five we ourselves saw hunted in silence.

Often and often, when standing in a gateway, partly hidden by the bushes, watching the woodpecker on the ant-hills, of whose eggs, too, the partridges are so fond (so that a good ant year, in which their nests are prolific, is also a good partridge year), you may, if you are still, hear a slight, faint rustle in the hedge, and by-and-by a weasel will steal out. Seeing you he instantly pauses, elevates his head, and steadily gazes; move but your eyes, and he is back in the hedge; remain quiet, still looking straight before you as if you saw nothing, and he will presently recover confidence, and actually cross the gateway almost under you. This is the secret of observation: stillness, silence, and apparent indifference. In some instinctive way these wild creatures learn to distinguish when one is or is not intent upon them in a spirit of enmity; and, if very near, it is always the eye they watch. So long as you observe them, as it were, from the corner of the eyeball, sidewise, or look over their heads at something beyond, it is well. Turn your glance full upon them to get a better view, and they are gone. When waiting in a dry ditch with a gun on a warm autumn afternoon for a rabbit to come out, sometimes a bunny will suddenly appear at the mouth of a hole which your knee nearly touches. He stops dead, as if petrified with astonishment, sitting on his haunches. His full dark eye is on you with a gaze of intense curiosity; his nostrils work as if sniffing; his whiskers move; and every now and then he thumps with his hind-legs upon the earth with a low, dull thud. This is evidently a sign of great alarm, at the noise of which any other rabbit within hearing instantly disappears in the "bury." Yet there your friend sits and watches you as if spellbound, so long as you have the patience to move neither hand nor foot nor to turn your eye. Keep your glance on the frond of the fern just beyond him, and he will stay. The instant your eye meets his, or a finger stirs, he plunges out of sight. It is so also with birds. Walk across a meadow, swinging a stick, even humming, and the rooks calmly continue their search for grubs within thirty yards; stop to look at them, and they rise on the wing directly. So, too, the finches in the trees by the road-side. Let the wayfarer pass beneath the bough on which they are singing, and they will sing on, if he moves without apparent interest; should he pause to listen, their wings glisten in the sun as they fly.

Stoats, though not so numerous as weasels, probably do quite as much injury, being larger, swifter, stronger, and very bold, sometimes entering sheds close to dwelling-houses. The laboring-people—at least, the elder folk—declare that they have been known to suck the blood of infants left asleep in the cradle upon the floor, biting the child behind the ear. They hunt in couples also—seldom in larger numbers. We have seen three at work together, and with a single shot killed two out of the trio. In elegance of shape they surpass the weasel, and the color is brighter. Their range of destruction seems only limited by their strength; they attack anything they can manage.

The keeper looks upon weasel and stoat as bitter foes, to be ruthlessly exterminated with shot and gin. He lays to their charge deadly crimes of murder, the death of rabbits, hares, birds, the theft and destruction of his young broods, even occasional abstraction of a chicken close to his very door, despite the dogs chained there. They are not easily shot, being quick to take shelter at the sight of a dog, and, when hard hit with the pellets, frequently escaping, though perhaps to die. Both weasel and stoat, and especially the latter, will snap viciously at the dog that overtakes them, even when sore wounded, always aiming to fix their teeth in his nose, and fighting savagely to the last gasp. The keeper slays a wonderful number in the course of a year, yet they seem as plentiful as ever. He traps perhaps more than he shoots. It is not always safe to touch a stoat caught in a trap; he lies apparently dead, but lift him up, and instantly his teeth are in your hand, and it is said such wounds sometimes fester for months. Stoats are tough as leather; though severely nipped by the iron fangs of the gin, struck on the head with the butt of the gun, and seemingly quite lifeless, yet, if thrown on the grass and left, you will often find on returning to the place in a few hours time that the animal is gone. Warned by experiences of this kind, the keeper never picks up a stoat till "settled" with a stick or shot, and never leaves him till he is nailed to the shed. Stoats sometimes emit a disgusting odor when caught in a trap. The keeper has no mercy for such vermin, though he thinks some other of his enemies are even more destructive.—Pall Mall Budget.