Posts Tagged ‘long-tailed weasel’


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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One can see the black tipped tail on this side.

It was snowing when I took this photos this morning. Those white flakes are actual snow flakes.

This animal is a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), which is native from southern Canada to Bolivia. It is larger than the ermine or stoat (Mustela erminea), which also turns white in winter in North America, and much larger than the least weasel (Mustela nivalis). In West Virginia, we have only least and long-tailed weasels, but other parts of North America have all three species. Least weasels and stoats are found throughout Eurasia, but the long-tailed weasel is found only in the Americas.

Only northern North American populations of long-tailed weasel turn white in winter.

This particular specimen was killed by my grandfather, who passed away in this past August. He was squirrel hunting in late October.  While he was stalking a gray squirrel den tree, he happened to catch sight of a cottontail rabbit running hard and fast. The rabbit ran past him and dove into a copse of heavy brush.  A few minutes later, a white thing started moving along. It was tracking the rabbit’s trail.

My grandpa had no idea what he was looking at, so he did what just about anyone from West Virginia would do if he came across an animal in the woods that he couldn’t identify.

He waited until the white thing crossed a long that the rabbit jumped over. As soon as it raised its head over the log, he blasted it with his shotgun.

He brought it home for me to identify, but I was confused as to what it really was. I didn’t know that long-tailed weasels would turn white in the winter in this part of the country.

The fur on the back is still chocolate brown.

The initial plan was to have it sent to a taxidermist, but no one got around to it.

It’s been the freezer weasel for all these years.

A close up of the head. Dollar bill for scale.

So this is the famed freezer weasel I’ve written about.

It’s taken me this long to put up on the blog, but here it is.

The snow flakes have an added effect, don’t they?

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Long-tailed weasels in the Southwest and California have masks. The ones around here do not.

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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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This mustelid is a Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica). Its range includes a huge chunk of Eurasia, and it is called the Siberian weasel because Westerners knew the species from Russian specimens. However, its vast range goes from European Russia all the way to Taiwan.

Its fur is marketed as “kolinsky sable,” and if you buy a brush that is said to come from a kolinsky sable, you are actually purchasing a brush tipped in the winter fur of this animal. In Russian, the animal’s name is “kolonok,” but it is easier for us to say Siberian weasel, even if its range is much more extensive than Siberia.

Although it looks very similar to the steppe polecat, it is not the same thing.  The two species share a range, but the steppe polecat is darker. The Siberian weasel is always this apricot color.

It’s a very attractive color for a weasel, and it sort of reminds me of some races of the long-tailed weasel. In the Southwestern US, the long-tailed weasels are masked. In my area, the local variant of the long-tailed weasel is unmasked, and it turns white in the winter.

When I saw a video of the Siberian weasel, I was much more reminded of the long-tailed weasel than any species of ferret or polecat. Here’s a playful Siberian weasel versus a pet ferret:


These animals are widely bred on fur farms, so my guess is that they are probably not far from being available on the pet market. I doubt that they are as domesticated as ferrets are.

However, the movement is so similar to the long-tailed weasel that I can’t help but be intrigued by this species.


Of course, I am a bit biased here, for my the weasel family has always fascinated me. They are as intelligent as dogs and cats, yet most of them are quite tiny in comparison.

Indeed, they have so fascinated me that I have the body of a long-tailed weasel in my freezer. It was shot in late October– just when its fur was turning from brown to white. I wanted to have it taxidermied, but I never got around to it.


The Chinese have the coolest name for the Siberian weasel.

It is huang shu lang, which means “yellow rat wolf.”

What a name!

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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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