The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Pop! Goes the Weasel

Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

The word “weasel” means different things to different people. I’ve known people I considered to be low down “weasels” and others that used “weasel words” to dance around a subject rather than say what they actually meant. On more than one occasion, I’ve stealthily snuck or “weaseled” out of a situation I didn’t want to be in. To my grandson, the music and lyrics of the tune “Pop-Goes-The-Weasel” emitting from his Jack-in-the-Box excites him every time the lid pops open – “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought ‘twas all in fun. Pop! Goes the weasel.” Great! – now, I’ll have a weasel-earworm for the rest of the day!

This is an example of how the perceived behavioral characteristics of a wildlife species, either good or bad, become descriptive of some of our human qualities. Sly as a fox, wise as an owl, quiet as a mouse and happy as a lark are just a few other examples. I would guess that few people here in Northcentral Texas have ever actually seen or had a close encounter with a real live weasel. To be honest, I haven’t either, but I wish I had. However, we do have a weasel species that is found here in Cross Timbers Country that merits our attention as a fellow critter of our faunal community.

The long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) of the Family Mustelidae is found statewide in Texas except for the Panhandle. They’re close kin to other Texas mustelid species including American mink, northern river otter, black-footed ferret and American badger. Members of this group of mammals are carnivores with short, strong jaws used to dispatch their prey with a powerful bite. They also have a pair of musk glands used to leave a lingering odor to communicate weasel to weasel about territory and mating rather than for defense like their stinky skunk cousins.

Long-tailed weasels have a long, slender body with a small head, long whiskers and short, stocky legs. As their name implies, the tail is relatively long; at least half again the length of their body. A large mature long-tailed male weasel measures up to 22 inches long and tips the scale at a whopping 9-10 ounces. Females are about half as big. On their back and upper sides, their thick velvety fur is cinnamon brown. On the lower sides and belly, the fur is white with a yellow or orange tinge; feet are brownish and the tail is black tipped. The underside fur color extends from behind the front legs below the chin. Up north, their coat becomes all white during the winter except for the black-tipped tail, making weasel hunting in snowy country tough for predators. During the year, they molt their fur in spring and again during the fall.

Weasels are active either day or night but prefer the cloak of darkness to move about. When they run, they have a hunch-back appearance, sorta like an inch-worm on the move. Although primarily terrestrial, long-tailed weasels will sometimes venture into trees to pursue prey. Weasels are wound pretty tight and have a high rate of metabolism, so they don’t hibernate and are active throughout the year. They live in a variety of habitats including woodlands, brushy areas, bottomlands, rocky outcrops, forest edges and will even take up under your house. They’ll also den up in abandoned burrows of other small mammals or evict reluctant tenants. Water is usually nearby somewhere in their home range, and they’re good swimmers.

A long-tailed weasel is a worse case scenario for a pocket gopher, ground squirrel, rat, mouse, small cottontail, shrew, tree squirrel, mole or other small mammal. They’ll quickly dispatch them with a bite to the skull or neck and then hang on until they expire. What they don’t eat, they’ll cache for later dining. Weasels sometime go on killing sprees in chicken coops and become less than welcome down on the farm. Chickens don’t seem to appreciate them either. On the flip side, they do kill many species of rodents and vermin around farm buildings and barns. Contrary to popular folk lore, they don’t suck blood from their victims. If preferred prey species aren’t available, they’ll also eat small birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, earthworms, fruits or berries.

Male weasels are territorial and defend their home range when other males intrude. Being polygamous, their home range may cross that of several females. For most of the year, males and females live separately and only mix and mingle during the breeding season. Weasels have acute senses of sight, smell and hearing making them very skilled predators. They communicate with a variety of sounds including screeches, squeals, rapid trills and even purr like a kitten when content.

Long-tailed weasels breed during July or August, but due to delayed implantation, the actual birth of young doesn’t happen until the following spring some 280 days or so later. They build their nests in rotting logs, hollow stumps, under tree roots or in holes in the ground. Nests are lined with grass, leaves and rabbit or rat fur for warmth and coziness. Once implantation occurs, embryos develop in only 27 days and up to nine young are born during April or May. They’re covered in white fur at birth and their eyes open in 36 days. By then they’re weaned and able to eat whole foods brought to them by the mother. Young weasels will stay with mom until fully grown; females mature in three months, males at one year. She teaches them to hunt and within a couple of months they can catch and kill prey on their own.

Long-tailed weasels aren’t without their own set of enemies. Snakes, hawks, owls, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, cats and dogs are known to have a weasel meal if given the opportunity. Their malodorous scent is enough to discourage most predators but not all.

There’s not a lot of current information on the status of long-tailed weasel populations in Texas and some reference I read indicate their population has declined because of loss of riparian habitats and land fragmentation due to development. They’re classified as fur-bearing animals in Texas and subject to regulations that govern those species. I hope there are still at least a few four-footed, long-tailed weasels here in Cross Timbers Country – heaven knows there’s sure plenty of the two-footed variety around. Until next time – I’ll see you down a Cross Timbers Country road and God Bless America!


At 10:15 PM, Blogger Sioux said...

Great column, Jim!

At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Jan McClintock said...

I was privileged enough to actually see a weasel this spring here in Medina County, very late at night and next to the Medina River. Even in the headlights of my car I could make out the coloring, and the short legs with claws and long tail. The way the animal moved was quick but not as smooth as I would have expected. In any case, an exciting time for me. Thanks for a great article.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger KMK said...

My husband and I just purchased a boat and have been taking it out on Lake Lavon (Wylie, TX). Every time we boat over to the damn we see at least one weasel but we have seen up to four at a time. We've seen them both in the morning and afternoon. They usually hang out on the South East side of the damn and move around within the rocks looking for food. One day we got within 10 feet of it. He reminded me of the silver tipped ferret I use to have as a pet, very cool!

At 2:20 PM, Anonymous Laurel said...

For my part one and all ought to look at it.

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