Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough this winter to see a short-tailed weasel in the Kimberley Nature Park. Or maybe you’ve seen weasel tracks in the snow. Do you know what to look for?
Short-tailed weasels are active little predators that have brown coats in summer and white winter coats, with the tip of the tail in black. This change in coat colour confused early Europeans, who named weasels stoats in their summer coats, and ermine in their winter coats.
Short-tailed weasels are active and inquisitive animals that have a wide geographic range. They can be found throughout the nature park, where they spend most of their time on the ground, with only an occasional foray up into the trees. They may have territories as large as 16 hectares, meaning that the nature park can support about 50 animals. The size of the territory and their reproductive success depend upon the abundance of prey, so their numbers vary from year to year.
This photo is of a long-tailed weasel. Short-tailed weasels can be found throughout the nature park.
Weasels eat as much as one-third of their weight each day to support their active lifestyle, and they may stockpile excess prey in burrows, which probably has led unfairly to their reputation as animals who love to kill. Seventy-five percent of their diet consists of mice and shrews. Female weasels can consume four mice per day when feeding their young, called kits. They also are known to eat chipmunks, squirrels, small rabbits, insects, small snakes, birds and the odd chicken should they get into the henhouse.
Weasels in turn are preyed upon by marten, larger owls, and hawks. When alarmed, weasels can produce a musky skunk-like odour.
Males have an average length of 272 mm and an average weight of 80 grams. Females are considerably smaller, at an average weight of 56 grams. This makes the female small enough to enter the burrows of mice and voles – weasels can even take over the burrows of dead prey to raise their young. In April or early May each year a litter of four to nine young kits with fine white coats will be born in a den lined with the fur of prey. Their eyes will open at five weeks, and by seven weeks the males will be as large as the mother. Females are sexually mature at two to three months of age, while males do not mature sexually until the February following their birth.
In winter, short-tailed weasel tracks can often be seen zig-zagging from one exposed stick or hole in the snow to another. The tracks are similar to those of squirrels, but squirrels tend to take longer leaps. As well, squirrels usually leave no drag mark from their tails, while weasels sometimes do. Next time you are out in the nature park, watch for their tracks in the snow.
For more information on the flora and fauna in the Kimberley Nature Park, check out the Nature Notes posters on our website at https://www.kimberleynaturepark.ca/posters
Image courtesy of Ed Koe.