Reflections in Nature: Father-daughter team trap ermine

When 14-year-old Rebecca Case told me she had been trapping with her dad, I was surprised because trapping is becoming a lost art.

Rebecca mentioned she and her dad had caught an ermine, two opossums, two raccoons, one skunk and one weasel. To be a successful trapper, one needs to know about the animals being trapped.

The pair told me they saw bobcat and fisher tracks in the snow and, although they would have liked to trap a bobcat, just seeing the tracks was thrill enough.

In Pennsylvania, we have three weasels: the long-tailed weasel (also known as New York weasel); the short-tailed weasel (aka ermine, stoat or Bonaparte’s weasel) and the least weasel (aka mouse weasel).

The short-tailed weasel’s scientific name is Mustela erminea. Mustela is Latin, meaning “weasel” and erminea is French, meaning “stoat.”

The common name ermine likely is derived from the root word “stoat,” coming from either the Belgic word stout, meaning “bold,” or the Gothic word stautan, meaning “to push,” which comes from the nation of Armenia, where it was thought the species originated.

Of course, the common name of short-tailed comes from the length of its tail, which can be up to 4 inches long.

A male stoat is known as either a dog, hob or jack, while a female is known as either a bitch or jill. The collective noun for stoats can be either gang or pack.

Although weasels are active throughout the year, they mostly are nocturnal. The weasels’ short legs and long sleek bodies enable them to enter rodent burrows.

Contrary to belief, weasels do not suck blood; however, they do lap it up. Organs, stomach contents as well as muscle tissue all are on the weasel’s diet.

In Pennsylvania, the short-tailed weasel becomes white during the winter months.

While less than one half of the long-tailed weasels turn white, the majority remain brown throughout the year. However, farther north, in the New England states, all of the long-tailed weasels will become white.

The least weasel remains brown all year long.

The female short-tailed weasel is about the size of a chipmunk. The sexes are colored alike, and the black-tipped tail is found in both the winter and summer plumage.

If the purpose is to blend in with the background, one has to wonder why the tip of the tail remains black even while wearing the white coat.

In one experiment done at a North Carolina university, a tethered red-tailed hawk was used to attack weasels. The hawk, which appeared to hone in on the black-tipped tail instead of the weasel’s body, missed, allowing the weasels to escape. Of course, during winters of no snow, the white weasel is visible and becomes an easy meal for both ground and flying predators.

The weasel has an incredible heartbeat of more than 100 times per minute, which burns up a lot of energy, creating a need for the weasel to eat half of its body weight in food each day.

Weasels, which are active all year round, find most of their food among the rodent population, with mice, moles and voles making up most of their diet. At one time, all rural homes had chicken coops and firewood stacks, which was why weasels were seen more often.

Although the mink is larger than the weasel, the easiest way to tell the two animals apart is that the weasel’s underpart is snow-white, while the mink’s underpart is overall brown, with perhaps a white spot on its throat.

About mid-April, in an underground nest, the female will give birth to four to nine pups, which are born blind, hairless and weighing about .5 ounce. In about five weeks, the pups’ eyes will open, and they will begin feeding on prey brought to them by the female. Earthworms are a favorite food at this time.

At about eight weeks, the pups will venture outside, and two to four weeks later, they begin killing their own food. The young females will have reached full size at about six months. It could take a year for the males to reach full size.

Two months after the young are born, the female goes into heat again. The fertilized eggs go through a short development period, and then all development ceases until spring arrives. About 25 days later, the young are born.

At one time, weasels were viewed as noxious animals prone to thieving, and their saliva was said to be able to poison a grown man.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.