Weasels, also called ermines, live one or two years. Their fur turns white in winter and brown in summer. Photo by Eric M. Beeman.
In the last century, when my wife was but a wee tyke, she spied a small hole in the bank overlooking a drainage ditch. An inquisitive lass, her rampant curiosity led her to insert her arm to see what treasures lay entombed inside. A muffled chittering and a quick brush with silky fur necessitated a hasty retreat, but not before a set of sharp white teeth buried themselves into the soft flesh of her thumb. My future bride shrieked and flailed her arm to no avail, as the marauder was firmly attached. A final bash loosened its grip and our young adventurer sped off to the solace of her grandparents, curious no more.
Most introductions to Alaska’s smallest furbearer are less traumatic, although perhaps as brief. As an animal who must eat daily at least 40 percent of its body weight, the weasel can’t afford to sit still for long. To live, a weasel must hunt, and to hunt, a weasel must move. I once watched a family of five pinball down a series of beach logs—a head here, a quick flash of brown, a disappearing hint of a tail tip—and was very relieved that I was not a small, succulent rodent.
Weasels are joined in the Mustelid family by the larger mink, marten, river and sea otter, wolverine, and, surprisingly, by a few fishers from southeast Alaska. Two species of weasels call Alaska home. The short-tailed weasel can be identified from its smaller cousin, the least weasel, by its larger size and the black tail tip, rather than the few black hairs which adorn the least weasels’ tail. Summer coats are brown on top with yellowish-white underparts. In winter, both are completely white except for the aforementioned tail ends. Weasels range over most of Alaska, barring only the Aleutian Islands west of Unimak and the offshore Islands of the Bering Sea.
Weasels live mostly on mice and voles, although other small game is occasionally taken. In Bush Alaska, a resident weasel is always welcome as they are great at keeping mice numbers in check around the cabin. Weasels are also great opportunists. I once watched a juvenile dragging a cabin-raiding squirrel dispatched by my son and pitched as far down the gravel beach as my long-suffering wife could throw. Not comfortable with an unprotected repast ‘neath the open sky, the spunky youngster would wrestle his prize ever closer to the safety of the forest, stopping every 15 feet for a breather, and then move onward in his gastric struggle once more. Upon reaching the shelter of the logs, both disappeared downward, not to be seen again.
Weasels are also scavengers. A big game carcass must seem a smorgasbord for an animal weighing less than half a pound. In winter you will often find many tracks in the surrounding snow, and a couple times, I have been surprised by the critter emerging from the frozen tunnel it had made into the inner cavity. One trait I have not personally seen, but that has been documented by ADF&G researchers, is that weasel dens often have a side chamber to store surplus rodents, killed in excess of what could be immediately consumed.
My father once remarked that if weasels were as big as dogs, it would be unsafe to venture outside. The diminutive cousin of the wolverine punches much harder than his size would suggest. For sheer pluckiness, its demeaner has no equal. As a child growing up in remote Alaska, I remember making a trip to the meat house where one of these sawed-off dynamos figured that the great frozen hunk of hanging moose ham was more his than mine. I eventually prevailed, but not before being thoroughly chastised in weaselspeak.
Weasel romance is a summer fling. Mating usually occurs in mid to late summer. After a long period of delayed implantation and another couple months of development, the young are born in May or June. Litters average six young, which emerge from the den in one to 1 1/2 months, and reach independence in another 45 days. During this time, littermates can be observed frolicking around and practicing their hunting skills. Winter’s waning light changes not only the short-tailed weasels’ coat to pure white, it also changes its name to the ermine. From medieval times onward, ermine fur was the mark of the European aristocracy. From Louis XIV to Catherine the Great to Queen Mary, the ermine has been the symbol of power and wealth. A portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine) was painted by none other than Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1400s. Nowadays, with demand much lessened, the weasel mostly gets to wear his own coat, and remains the terror of mice, voles, and the occasional curious 10-year-old who sticks her fingers down a small hole in a bank above a drainage ditch.