Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/Concerning Weasels

CONCERNING WEASELS.
By WILLIAM E. CRAM.

WHY is it that while popular fancy has attributed all sorts of uncanny and supernatural qualities to owls and cats, and that no ghost story or tale of horrid murder has been considered quite complete without its rat peering from some dark corner, or spider with expanded legs suddenly spinning down from among the rafters, no such grewsome association has ever attached itself to the weasels, creatures whose every habit and characteristic would seem to suggest something of the sort? Now, fond as I am of cats, I should never think of denying that they are uncanny creatures, to say the least. But, suppose it was the custom of our domestic tabbies to vanish abruptly or even gradually on occasion, like the Cheshire cat after its PSM V54 D810 Weasel.png interview with Alice, that would at least furnish some excuse for the general prejudice against them, but would really be no more than some of our commonest weasels do whenever it serves their purpose. I remember one summer afternoon I was trout-fishing along a little brook that ran between pine-covered hills. As I lay stretched on the bank at the foot of a great maple I saw a weasel run along in the brush fence some distance away. A few seconds later he was standing on the exposed root of the tree hardly a yard from my eyes. I lay motionless and examined the beautiful creature minutely, till suddenly I found myself staring at the smooth greenish-gray root of the maple with 110 weasel in sight. Judging from my own experience, I should say that this is the usual termination of any chance observations of either weasels or minks.

Occasionally they may be seen to dart into the bushes or behind some log or projecting bank, but much more frequently they vanish with a suddenness that defies the keenest eyesight.

In all probability this vanishing is accomplished by extreme rapidity of motion, but if this is the case then the creature succeeds in doing something utterly impossible to any other warm-blooded animal of its size. Mice, squirrels, and some of the smaller birds are all of them swift enough at times, but except in the case of the humming bird none of them, I believe, succeed in accomplishing the result achieved by the weasels. The humming bird, in spite of its small size, leaves us a pretty definite impression of the direction it has taken when it darts away: but when a mink, PSM V54 D811 Weasel.png half a yard in length and weighing several pounds, stands motionless before one with his dark coat conspicuous against almost any background, and the next instant is gone without a rustle or the tremor of a blade of grass, it leaves one with an impression of witchcraft difficult to dispel, and best appreciated when one sees it for one's self. Nor is the everyday life of the weasel quiet or commonplace; his one object in life apparently is to kill, first to appease his hunger, then to satisfy his thirst for warm blood, and after that for the mere joy of killing.

The few opportunities I have had for observing these animals have never shown them occupied in any other way, nor can any hint of anything different be gained from the various writers on the subject, while accounts of their attacking and even killing human beings in a kind of blind fury are too numerous and apparently well authenticated to be entirely ignored. These attacks are said usually to be made by a number of weasels acting in concert, and the motive would appear to be revenge for some injury done to one of their number. There seems to be something peculiar about the entire family of weasels. The American sable or pine marten is said to have strange ways that have puzzled naturalists and hunters for years. In the wilderness no amount of trapping has any effect on their numbers, nor do they show any especial fear of man or his works, occasionally even coming into lumber camps at night and being especially fond of old logging roads and woods that have been swept by fire; but at the slightest hint of approaching civilization they disappear, not gradually, but at once and forever, and the woods know them no more. If there is anything in the theory of the survival of the fittest, why is it that not one marten has discovered that, like other animals of its size, it could manage to live comfortably enough in the vicinity of man? The mink and otter still follow the course of every brook and river and manage to avoid the keen eyes of the duck hunter, PSM V54 D812 Weasel.png while for six months in the year their paths are sprinkled with steel traps set either especially for them or for the more plebeian muskrat. If a pair of sables could be persuaded to take up their quarters in some parts of New England they could travel for dozens of miles through dark evergreen woods with hollow and decaying trees in abundance, while at present there are almost no traps set in a manner that need disturb creatures of their habits. Partridges, rabbits, and squirrels, which form their principal food, are nearly if not quite as abundant as before the country was settled, so that it would certainly not require any very decided change of habits to enable them to exist, but evidently the root of the matter goes deeper than that, and, like some tribes of Indians, it is impossible for them to multiply or flourish except in the primeval forest.

The common weasel or ermine, which is the only kind I have seen hereabouts, would seem to have everything on its side in the struggle for existence, and when one happens to be killed by some larger inhabitant of the woods it must be due entirely to its own carelessness. Nevertheless, they do occasionally fall victims to owls and foxes, and I once shot a red-tailed hawk that was in the act of devouring one. Still, these casualties among weasels are probably few and far between. Fortunately, however, they never increase to any great extent. Occasionally in the winter the snow for miles will be covered with their tracks all made in a single night, and then for weeks not a track is to be seen; but usually they prefer to hunt alone, each having its beat a mile or more in length, over which it travels back and forth throughout the season, passing any given point at intervals of two or three days. This habit of keeping to the same route instead of wandering at random about the woods is characteristic of the family, the length of the route depending to a certain extent on the size of the animal. The mink is usually about a week in going his rounds, and may cover a dozen miles in that time, while the otter is generally gone a fortnight or three weeks. When it is possible the ermine prefers to follow the course of old tumble-down stone walls, and lays its course accordingly. In favorable districts he is able to keep to these for miles together, squeezing into the smallest crevices in pursuit of mice or chipmunks. All the weasels travel in a similar manner—that is, by a series of leaps or bounds in such a way that the hind feet strike exactly in the prints made by the fore paws, so that the tracks left in the snow are peculiar and bear a strong family resemblance. On soft snow the slender body of the ermine leaves its imprint extending from one pair of footprints to the next, and as these are from four to six feet apart, or even more, the impression left in the snow is like the track of some extremely long and slender serpent with pairs of short legs at intervals along its body. I have said that the ermine is the only true weasel I have found in this vicinity, but this is not strictly true, at least I hope not. One winter I repeatedly noticed the tracks of an exceedingly large weasel—so very large, in fact, that I was almost forced to believe them to be those of a mink. The impression of its body in the snow was quite as large as that made by a small mink, but the footprints themselves were smaller, and the creature appeared to avoid the water in a manner quite at variance with the well-known habits of its more amphibious cousin, while, unlike the common weasel, it never followed stone walls or fences. I put my entire mind to the capture of the little beast, and set dozens of traps, but it was well along in the month of March before I succeeded. It proved to be a typical specimen of the Western long-tailed weasel, though I can find no account of PSM V54 D813 Weasel.png any other having been taken east of the Mississippi. Its entire length was about eighteen inches; the tail, which was a little over six, gave the effect at first glance of being tipped with gray instead of black, but a closer inspection showed that the black hairs were confined to the very extremity and were partly concealed by the overlying white ones; the rest of the fur was white, with a slight reddish tinge, and much longer and coarser than that of an ermine. Since then I have occasionally seen similar tracks, but have not succeeded in capturing a second specimen. In all probability the least weasel is also to be found here if one has the patience to search carefully enough; none, however, have come under my observation as jet, All the small weasels that I have seen have proved on close inspection to be young ermines with thickly furred black-tipped tails; in the least weasel the tail is thinly covered with

PSM V54 D814 Weasel attacking bird.png

short hair and without any black whatever. Late in the autumn or early in the winter the ermine changes from reddish-brown to white, sometimes slightly washed with greenish-yellow or cream color, and again as brilliantly white as anything in Nature or art; the end of the tail, however, remains intensely black, and at first thought might be supposed to make the animal conspicuous on the white background of snow, but in reality has just the opposite effect, Place an ermine on new-fallen snow in such a way that it casts no shadow, and you will find that the black point holds your eye in spite of yourself, and that at a little distance it is quite impossible to follow the outline of the weasel itself. Cover the tail with snow, and you can begin to make out the position of the rest of the animal, but as long as the tip of the tail is in sight you see that and that only. The ptarmigan and northern hare also retain some spot or point of dark color when they take on their winter dress, PSM V54 D814 Weasel.png and these dark points undoubtedly serve the same purpose as in the case of the ermine. An old hunter, one of the closest observers of Nature I have ever known, once told me that female minks hibernated in winter in the same manner as bears, though it was his belief that, unlike the bears, they never brought forth their young at that season. At first I refused to take the slightest stock in what he said; the whole thing appeared so absurd and so utterly at variance with the teachings of those naturalists who have made the closest possible study of the habits of minks. Since then, however, I have kept my eyes open for any hint that might have the slightest bearing on the subject, and to my surprise have found many things that would seem to point to the correctness of the old hunter's theory. To begin with, he said that late in the winter he had repeatedly known female minks to make their appearance from beneath snow that had lain undisturbed for days or even weeks, the tracks apparently beginning where he first observed them, the difference in size between the two sexes being sufficient to make it easy to distinguish between their tracks at a glance; and, moreover, since he first began trapping he had noticed that while the sexes were about equally abundant in the autumn, the females always became very scarce at the approach of winter and remained so until spring, when they suddenly increased in numbers and became much the more abundant of the two.

This is also the experience of trappers in general, and may be verified by any one who cares to take the trouble to look into the matter. Evidently no one has ever discovered a mink in a state of hibernation; at any rate, no such case appears ever to have been reported; but this does not necessarily prove that it is not a regular habit among them.

The cry of the mink is seldom heard, even in places where they are fairly abundant, as they have evidently learned that the greatest safety lies in silence. It is a peculiarly shrill, rattling, whistlelike scream, that can be heard at a considerable distance.