“You weasel!” “What a skunk!” and “Hey, ferret-face” are not typically terms of endearment, at least not from a human perspective. It is undeniable that members of the mustelidae family have a few not-so-sought-after characteristics, but those very attributes are part and parcel of what makes these animals the most successful of the small carnivores. It’s hard not to feel a bit of grudging admiration for a critter—the Mustela rixosa, or least weasel—weighing less than half a pound that can kill something eight or ten times its own weight, even if that something is one of your chickens.
There are sixty-five species in the mustelidae family, including weasels, ermines, fishers, river otters, wolverines, badgers, minks, skunks, and ferrets. They tend to be short-legged with longish, slender bodies, pointy faces, and cute rounded ears. The wolverine and the badger have stockier builds and, along with the river otter (the only family member with webbed feet and also the only one known as “the playboy of the wild”), are the larger species in the family. Most, except for otters, are prone to be nocturnal. They are both terrestrial and semi-aquatic; they live in burrows, hollow trees, dense vegetation, rock crevasses, farmlands, woodlands, and swamps. They are mostly solitary and, except for skunks, which are understandably not too concerned with running across the occasional human, quite shy.
Earlier this winter I was lucky enough to see an ermine run across the road as I was driving home. Ermine always have a black-tipped tail; in its white winter phase it can be hard to tell an ermine from a long-tailed weasel, which also turns white in the northern range, but the ermine is quite a bit smaller. The least weasel also turns white in winter but does not have a black-tipped tail.
My only other really personal experience with weasels, the animal kind, that is, has been chicken-related. We had lost a few hens over the course of a few days one summer—we found them dead in the coop with bite marks on their necks. Shortly after that, one of our cats left us two dead weasels—least weasels, I think—on the porch steps.
I felt bad for both the chickens and the weasels.
For some fun weasel facts, including the myth of glow-in-the-dark mustela fur, visit mentalfloss.com and search for weasel.