Posts Tagged ‘ermine’


In late October 1999, my grandpa, also named Scottie Westfall, was out squirrel hunting. While staking out one of his favorite stands of hickory,  he heard brush cracking and a rabbit screaming.  Suddenly, a cottontail rabbit came running down a game trail. The rabbit stopped at little copse of brush, just a couple of yards from where my grandpa was staking out the squirrel trees.

Usually when one sees a rabbit running down a trail, something is pursuing it.

In this forest, the rabbits get pushed hard by the red and gray foxes, and the coyotes do take more than a few.

So my grandpa waited with his eyes trained on the trail from whence the rabbit came.

Just a few minutes later, something small and white came jumping along. It followed the rabbit’s trail perfectly and then went into the brush where the rabbit was.

The rabbit bolted before the creature could come near, and after white beast sniffed out the little copse of brush, it began to sniff around to see if it could pick up the rabbit’s trail again.  It soon did and started hunting again, and as it came along it happened to raise its head above a log.

Which created the perfect shot opportunity.

My grandpa shot the animal and realized it was some kind of weasel. However, it was quite a bit larger than the common least weasel that he knew so well, and what’s more, the weasel was almost entirely white.

My grandpa thought he knew all the animals of these woods pretty well. Weasels were the bane of the chicken coops when he was a boy, and he told me about trapping a few of them for their fur.

He also told me of how he illegally ferreted with an albino ferret, using him in groundhog dens and abandoned pipe to drive out cottontail rabbits that sought refuge from extreme cold or barking dogs.

But he’d never seen a white weasel before.

I vaguely knew that there were white weasels in the United States. I had read all about ermines and something called “Bonaparte’s weasel” that turned white in winter.

But teenage me just decided it was an ermine, and we left it at that.

He did a informal survey of all his hunting buddies, and none of them had ever heard of an ermine or a white weasel.

It’s been in the freezer ever since. I knew there was something odd about it.

I’ve written about it on the blog before.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it was a long-tailed weasel.

I don’t want to make this confusing, but in the Eastern US, there are two weasels that turn white in the winter. The ermine or short-tailed weasel is the one that Old World readers might know as a stoat. Most stoats from the British Isles don’t turn white in winter. This species is found throughout Eurasia and North America, but it has never been recorded in West Virginia. It comes only as far south as Pennsylvania. An old name for this weasel is Bonaparte’s weasel.

The long-tailed weasel is found in North and South America.  It does turn white in winter, but not all of them do. The Maryland/Pennsylvania border seems to be the geographical separation between weasels that turn white in winter and those that don’t. And in Pennsylvania and Ohio, not all weasels turn white.

Last week, I was contacted by a researcher from North Carolina State University, who is working on a study of snowshoe hares in the High Alleghenies. One of their research questions involved West Virginia’s long-tailed weasel population and their perennial brown pelage.

If you look up white weasels in West Virginia on Google, you wind up at my blog.

So I met with this researcher in Elkins, and it turns out that this weasel is a real weird one.

If you look at the logic of the two potential winter white weasel species I suggested, there are two main possibilities about what this animal could be.

It’s either an errant long-tailed weasel that doesn’t realize that just happens to have the genetics to turn white or it’s the first documented ermine in West Virginia.

I think the former is more likely.

But that’s not where it gets really bizarre. This weasel was not killed in the Allegheny Highlands, where the snow cover lasts the longest every year. It is certainly true that some of the higher elevation places in West Virginia are more like Maine or Eastern Canada, and one would think those places would be full of weasels that turn white in winter.

This weasel was killed in the Allegheny Plateau, and in the late 90’s, the winters were so mild that there was virtually no snow cover at all in this part of the state.

So why would a weasel turn white?

These woods where this weasel roamed are full of barred owls and red-tailed hawks that would love nothing more than have weasel to eat. A white weasel on the forest floor would just be advertising itself to the winged predators.

So this weasel raises many questions.

Soon, I’ll be setting out weasel gland lure with my trail camera to see if there are other weasels like this one in the area. Maybe there is an anomalous population of weasels in this part of West Virginia.

Or maybe this one was just a fluke.

Whatever it was, this weasel is a mystery. Some may give my late grandfather hell for shooting this weasel, but if he hadn’t shot it, we wouldn’t have this specimen, which might be the first record of a weasel molting to white in a population south of Pennsylvania.

Charles Darwin got into natural history as a recreational shooter. He traveled around the world on the Beagle killing unusual animals left and right.  He killed the South American fox species that bears his name with geological hammer.

If Hornaday had not killed the “big old ‘gator of Arch Creek,”  we wouldn’t have known that crocodiles lived in Florida.

My grandfather was pretty well-versed in natural history, and I think that if he were alive today, he would be impressed that this animal he killed while squirrel hunting would raise so many questions– and be such an anomaly.









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Audubon’s “tawny weasel” was of no use as a ferret, but the species referred to as the ermine or stoat were excellent rabbit ferrets.

Using ferrets to catch rabbits is an old European tradition. It did have some following in the United States, but now it has been outlawed virtually everywhere.

However, there were at least a few attempts to adapt ferreting to American mustelids.

The following account comes from John James Audubon’s The Quadrupeds of North America, Volume 3 (1854):

We find from our notes, that in the State of New York in the winter of 1808, we kept a Weasel, which we suppose may have been this species [“The Tawny Weasel”], in confinement, together with several young ermines. The latter all became white in winter, but the former underwent no change in colour, remaining brown. On another occasion a specimen of a brown Weasel was brought to us in the month of December. At that season the ermines are invariably white. We cannot after the lapse of so many years say with certainty whether these specimens of Weasels that were brown in winter were those of the smaller, Putorius pusillus, or the present species ; although we believe from our recollection of the size they were the latter. We therefore feel almost warranted in saying that this species docs not change colour in winter.

We were in the habit of substituting our American Weasels for the European ferrets, in driving out the gray rabbit (Lepus sylvaticus) from the holes to which that species usually resorts in the northern States, when pursued by dogs… Whilst the ermines seemed to relish this amusement vastly, the brown Weasel refused to enter the holes, and we concluded that the latter was the least courageous animal (pg. 235-236).

From Audubon’s description of the “tawny weasel” describes it as being much more robust than a European weasel [the least weasel] and that it has a black-tipped tail.  The black-tipped tail and the description of it being distinct from but similar to a stoat or ermine strongly suggests that this “tawny weasel” was what we call a long-tailed weasel. Further, all North American stoats or ermines turn white in the winter. Not all long-tailed weasels do.

The ones in my area actually do, but the ones that Audubon was encountered in the lower part of New York State did not.

I’ve never heard of anyone using anything other than a ferret to ferret, but the use of North American mustelids for this purpose is pretty interesting.

Ferreting with the long-tailed weasels was evidently a failure, but using ermines/stoats to do so was not.

I wonder why stoats/ermines never became as domesticated as ferrets are.

I don’t know how hard they are breed in captivity, but if they were easy to handle, there must be some good reason why they were never domesticated.

In North America, rabbits go to ground only when pressed by an enemy or when the cold weather drives them into holes or pipes.

European rabbits dig extensive warrens, but American cottontails do not.

This could go a long way to explaining why European ferrets were so successful as domestic animals.

We didn’t have the need to make our own ferrets out of our own mustelids– except on a very limited basis.

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Ermine (Mustela erminea), which is pronounced “er-men,” have three names. In North America, they are always called ermine or long-tailed weasels. In Europe and New Zealand, they are called stoats.

In North America, they tend to be found in the northern US and Canada, and most of them turn white in the winter.

Ermine coats are invariably of winter phase stoats from North America.

There is a related species called the long-tailed weasel(Mustela frenata), which is found from southern Canada to Bolivia. Some of the North American populations also turn white in winter.  The main difference between the species is that the long-tailed weasel has a significantly longer tail in proportion to its body size, and they are normally quite a bit larger. However, there is a size overlap.  The smallest long-tailed weasels are about the same size as the largest stoats. Long-tailed weasels are much larger than least weasels (Mustela nivalis), which are the smallest Carnivorans. Least weasels, like the stoat, are found in both Eurasia and North America, and they can even be found in parts of North Africa.

I have a long-tailed weasel in the freezer. It was killed in the late 90’s during squirrel season. It was chasing a rabbit when it was shot, and it was in the transitional phase between its winter and summer pelt.

Update:  I have uploaded photos in a post of my long-tailed weasel that I mention here.

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(NB:  Stoats are called ermine or short-tailed weasels in the United States and Canada.)

From The Independent:

In Britain, stoats are part of the rhythm of nature. They prey on rabbits and rats; they are preyed on by foxes and eagles. In New Zealand, whose only land mammals were two species of bats until Europeans arrived, stoats are the single biggest threat to the unique and increasingly threatened native birdlife.

A world leader in conservation, New Zealand has saved some of its rarest birds from extinction by ridding off-shore islands of predators. Stoats, which can swim, were thought to have a maximum range of 1.5 kilometres (less than a mile). Recently, though, the sleek, furry killers have turned up on an island more than five kilometres from the mainland, raising questions about the safety of offshore sanctuaries.

Many of New Zealand’s birds live and nest on the forest floor. Some, such as kakapo, weka and kiwi, are flightless. When they feel under threat, they freeze, making them easy prey for animals such as rats, cats and ferrets. Stoats – introduced in 1884 to combat a rabbit plague – are particularly formidable predators. They can tackle animals 10 times their body weight; they hunt by day as well as at night; they can travel vast distances, climb trees, and survive in almost any habitat. They are also prolific breeders, and they kill far more than they need to satisfy their hunger.

“When stoats get into a seabird colony or chicken hutch, they kill everything,” says Andrew Veale, an expert on stoat genetics at Auckland University. He cites credible reports of a moorhen being attacked by a stoat and taking off into the air, with the stoat still attached. Dr Veale says: “They are phenomenal killers, with an immense bite strength.”

More than 80 of New Zealand’s offshore islands are pest-free sanctuaries where all mammals have been removed through trapping, shooting, and dropping poison from helicopters. Last year, a stoat was found on Rangitoto Island, more than three kilometres off Auckland. The island had been declared predator-free only a year earlier, following a NZ$3m (£1.6m) eradication programme. By analysing the stoat’s DNA, Dr Veale established that it was from the mainland. This year, three stoats have been trapped on Kapiti island, a wildlife reserve 5.2 kilometres off Wellington. Dr Veale believes a female swam over and gave birth.

The destructive potential of stoats is well established. A single male killed 93 petrels on Motuotau island, in the Bay of Plenty, in four weeks. There have been instances of one or two stoats arriving on islands and wiping out entire populations. Philip Bell, a biosecurity officer with the Department of Conservation (DOC), said that if stoats could swim more than five kilometres, “there would be implications for the majority of islands around New Zealand”. He added: “A couple of stoats can create a breeding colony and wipe everything out. Stoats are arguably the biggest threat to our native bird species.”

They are also expensive. DOC has already spent more than NZ$200,000 trapping the three stoats on Kapiti. It will have to monitor hundreds of traps and tracking tunnels on the island for at least two years, as well as using dogs trained to detect stoats. No one is sure what prompts stoats to swim, although they appear to be in search of food. Dr Veale speculates that they take to the water after spotting land on the horizon. With the right tides, they could then travel considerable distances.

New Zealand’s first offshore wildlife refuge was established in 1891, on Resolution Island, off the South Island’s Fiordland coast. A decade later, stoats reached Resolution and killed off its kakapo population. However, more island sanctuaries followed, and kakapo were among the bird species rescued from extinction. Another bird, the Chatham Islands robin, was down to five individuals; but after being transferred to an island, the population recovered.

The stoats and ferrets (which were crossed with European polecats in order to make them more likely to survive in the wild) were introduced to control rabbits.

European rabbits were introduced so that they could be hunted as a game species, but New Zealand’s ecosystem was essentially predator free. Rabbits evolved with heavy predation pressure, and they are the archetypal r-selection species. Whenever one of these species is put into an environment where the pressures that forced them to evolve this reproduction strategy are absent, they very easily begin to overproduce.

However, the logic of introducing stoats or ferret-polecat crosses to control the rabbits appears to have been sound– until one actually applies it.  Rabbits evolves with mustelids attacking them, and they have ways of avoiding predation.  However, the ground-nesting birds of New Zealand evolved with virtually no ground predators, and they have no ways of avoiding mustelid predation.

Stoats and ferret-polecats are intelligent enough to know which species are more easy to hunt, so they go for the ground nesting birds over the rabbits.

So while they do attack and hunt rabbits, they have proved to be much more injurious to native New Zealand birds than to rabbits.

The only way to deal with stoats and ferret-polecats is to kill them.

It can’t be sugar-coated.

Either we cull the invasive species, or the endemic avian fauna of New Zealand is doomed.

But because these are pretty intelligent Carnivorans that are small enough to hide themselves easily, it might be impossible to kill them all.

And those that will remain will be the most wily little things, which will produce offspring that are even more cunning.

Over time, they could become even harder to control.

But even with that possible issue, these animals must be controlled now before the birds become extinct.



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A stoat (Mustela erminea) uses playful cavorting to “cast a spell” on the rabbits:


Stoats have a holarctic range.

In North America, we call them short-tailed weasels. Some subspecies turn white in the winter, and these are widely trapped for their fur.

The fur is sold as ermine.

Stoat is synonymous with short-tailed weasel and ermine.

Stoats are in introduced species in New Zealand, where they wreak havoc upon ground nesting birds.

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This subspecies of long-tailed that lives in California and the Southwest has a mask and looks even more like a tiny ferret than the winter phase of the subspecies we have here.


Olduvai George has a nice depiction of one, in case you wanted a closer look at that mask.

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This subspecies of long-tailed that lives in California and the Southwest has a mask and looks even more like a tiny ferret than the winter phase of the subspecies we have here.


Olduvai George has a nice depiction of one, in case you wanted a closer look at that mask.

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