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Refuge Notebook: Short-tailed weasel chooses crawl space to raise its young

Posted: November 28, 2013 - 12:56pm
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Photos by Ted Bailey The female weasel pauses for a second as she descends the stairs on our deck.
Photos by Ted Bailey The female weasel pauses for a second as she descends the stairs on our deck.

Two of the three species of North American weasels live on the Kenai Peninsula: the common short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), also known as the ermine when white in the winter, and the more secretive, less abundant and smallest weasel, the least weasel (Mustela nivalis). In Europe and Asia the short-tailed weasel is called the stoat. The third and largest North American weasel, the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) lives north only as far as southern Canada but its range extends into South America. In the northern areas of their range, the fur of all three species of weasels becomes white in the winter.

Although I have observed short-tailed and least weasels on the Kenai Peninsula and have seen a few long-tailed weasels in the Lower 48 states, this spring I had the opportunity to repeatedly observe a female short-tailed weasel because she chose to raise her young somewhere in the crawl space under our log house. I did not know this when I first saw her but when I began to see her daily, sometimes several times a day, I suspected there was a reason she always came back to the same spot beneath our deck and quickly disappeared, apparently squeezing between connecting bottom logs to get under the house. I was confident that she was a “she” as male weasels do not help raise the young.

Our female was always cautious, sometimes bold and continuously alert. Sometimes she ran by only several feet away from where I sat as if I was only another obstacle in her way. She hunted voles nearby and eventually, as her young matured, she began to bring voles back to them. I once watched her chase a red-backed vole she flushed nearby but on that occasion the vole escaped.

Another time she made a short trip to where she had apparently earlier hidden a dead vole and carried it in her mouth back to feed her hidden young. She bounded across our back deck, ran up and down our outside stairs, raced across the front porch, disappeared into one end of a log storage shed and quickly came out the other end. She climbed into the wheel well and engine compartments of our parked vehicles and stuck her head out of their grills. She sometimes chattered if suddenly disturbed. She was seldom stationary; I often tried to photograph her but usually only succeeded in getting a brown blur or more often an image minus the weasel.

Weasels have been described as “hair-trigger mousetraps with teeth.” Probably because of the female’s hunting prowess, I saw few voles around our house when she was about. The weasel’s narrow cylindrical bodies allow them to enter the smallest space in pursuit of voles and mice. The least weasel whose tiny body is the size of a vole, can even pursue voles in their own underground tunnels.

I never saw how many young this female weasel bore or successfully raised. The average litter size of short-tailed weasels varies from six to eleven. I suspect the female I watched moved her young one night, perhaps to a quieter more peaceful place than under the house. Like her sudden appearance, she also abruptly disappeared, but left me with an unforgettable and rewarding experience few can claim.

 

Dr. Ted Bailey is a retired Kenai National Wildlife Refuge wildlife biologist who has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for over 37 years. He maintains a keen interest in the Kenai Peninsula’s wildlife and natural history. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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