fauna homestead

A weasel if you pleasel

Neil was standing thoughtfully by the window a few days ago, when he abruptly interrupted his own reverie with: “Look! There’s a rabbit running across the… What is that??!”

Our home sits on the side of a drumlin, about halfway down. There are woods above us and woods below us, but our home sits on a shelf in the landscape. A flat open area as the woods step down to the road.

With woods on all sides, we often catch moments of stories whose narrative starts and ends in the trees and brush around us. Our yard is not usually the setting of the climax, though sometimes it hosts intense moments that advance the plot. The line of coyote tracks don’t pause here, they’re just following the thread between the woods north and south. A hawk may swoop fast and low across the open space, but its talons are destined for something on the other side. Or, in this case, the yard reveals a furry flash of bunny, trying to put as much distance as possible between it and the… what-is-that.

I dropped everything and ran to join Neil. If Neil thinks he sees something interesting, then Neil has seen something interesting. Don’t drop everything, and regret will follow.

The what-is-that was a weasel. A beautiful long-tailed weasel (Neogale frenata) bouncing and slinking around the yard. At a glance, it reminds you of a squirrel. Same sinewy gallop, and a similar scale, on the smaller-than-a-breadbox woodland size chart.

But the best part, the very best part, was that the weasel was mid-moult. Come winter, long- and short-tailed weasels here change out their brown coats for brilliant white ones. They are the snowshoe hares of southern Ontario. But there is a glorious chapter when the work is still in progress. And if you’re lucky, you might spot a tortoiseshell weasel. Not quite brown, not quite white. Though, in this case, the weasel had a fully moulted winter-white tail. Must be interesting to have your tail a season ahead of your torso…

The very tip of the long-tailed weasel’s tail is more stoic than the rest of its fur. It doesn’t do anything so fickle as change because of the weather. It remains an ebony black no matter what wind is blowing. There are theories to try and explain the why of it. Even the weasel, much maligned by chicken-keepers the world over, has its predators. Owls and other raptors will happily make a meal of a weasel. It’s possible the weasel’s flicking black tail tip is bait, keeping eagle eyes away from the jugular. Go after the tip, and you’ve calibrated to the wrong end. An escape might still be possible.

The name “ermine” is colloquially applied to many species of weasel, not just Mustela erminea, whenever the weasels are wearing their winter coats. And if you think an expanse of white fur with a little black dot looks familiar, but you can’t quite place it, it might just be weasels’ “noble” connection…

I hadn’t given much thought as to why the white fur trims on garments in old paintings were so often dotted with black. I assumed it was a decorative element added or dyed after the fact. But it is as nature made it. The black is the tip of the tail, included when the pelts were stitched together. A little whisper of the weasels that were. Have a look through historic portraiture, and see the plush fur trim with new eyes. Nothing says “I am powerful and important” like wrapping yourself in weasels. (We are not so far from this today, with modern humans gluing mink to our eyelashes, sights set on that elusive target, “beauty”.)

Back to present day though. And this moulty tortoiseshell jumping bean of a friend. Here is a video of its few moments in our yard. Flashy acrobatics out by the woodpile, followed by a dash through the woods when the bunny returned. I don’t know how the tale with the bunny ended, though I root equally for each of them. In this story, they are predator and prey. In another, our cast takes on new roles. A hawk chasing the weasel, the bunny nibbling the sapling to the ground. All the realities of nature. Everything wants to live, everything needs to eat. Not all stories have villains, most especially the ones that are true.