By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum
Our neighbor asked about weasels because he has seen one running around in his yard. Wisconsin is home to three species of weasels – the long-tailed, short-tailed, and least weasels. They are 8-16 inches long, and with the exception of the least weasel, have black-tipped tails in the winter. The last time I saw a weasel I’m pretty sure it was a long-tailed weasel, about 16 inches long. Two of them were chasing each other around in the middle and side of the road, and so I stayed put in my car for quite some time, just watching their antics.
White in the winter, except for the white tail, long-tailed weasels are thought to be more nocturnal. They are active all winter long, and some evidence suggests that they may be more active during the day in the summer. They shed their fur twice a year in our climate from brown to white, while in a southern climate stay brown all year round. They live in unused burrows, uprooted tree roots, under rocks, or in rotting logs. They can be found in almost any habitat, but preferably one near water, as they drink a significant amount of water each day. Their home range can be up to 40 acres of land. Although a male’s home range may overlap many female home ranges, home ranges of adults of the same sex do not overlap.
On the long-tailed weasel menu we might find mice, voles, pocket gophers, chipmunks, rabbits, or other small mammals. They also eat insects, birds, or bird eggs. In winter they use the same pathways under the snow that mice, voles, or shrews have created to catch their mammal prey. They also follow prey into their burrows as well. A user of scent and sound to find their prey, they often bob their heads back and forth to sense where their prey is located. They probe every crevice or possible place searching on the hunt for a meal. Occasionally, long-tailed weasels will kill more prey than they can eat, and so will store it away for later, just as squirrels or blue jays cache their nuts.
The long-tailed weasel can swim and even climb trees. They also use vocalizations that include purrs, squeals, and squeaks, but usually only when they are disturbed. They are aggressive with intruders in their territory. They may release a musk that is strong smelling when frightened and during mating season.
One of my favorite snowshoe forays was when I followed weasel tracks. The tracks led up to some vole tracks, where the vole tracks disappeared, literally, to never be seen again. Imagine the excitement of discovering a weasel in our own backyard, popping up out of a burrow, or out of the snow after having eaten a vole dinner. It would bring a whole new meaning to the words, “pop, goes the weasel!”
For over 42 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibit. Find it in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also discover us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org, on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturewatch.blogspot.com/ to learn more about our exhibits and programs.