My friends in town are mourning the loss of their laying hens. Thirty-one of the birds were killed over a short period of time this spring. The carcasses were left intact, minus the heads. The killing spree culprit? A weasel. When they told a neighbor about the loss, the neighbor said they’d lost twenty chickens. It seems no matter how tight a person predator-proofs the henhouse this little killer has a way of weaseling in.
As a culture we learn about weasels as toddlers through nursery rhymes and toys like the Jack in the Box. In fact, June 14 is National Pop Goes the Weasel Day in the USA. That song came to mind one day as an adult when I watched a family of weasels in a large woodpile, popping their heads up and disappearing at various locations making it impossible to count the exact number of these agile animals. I found the experience fascinating because it’s so rare to see these creatures.
There are two kinds of weasels in New Hampshire—the short-tailed and long-tailed weasels. Both molt their brown fur and turn white in the winter, although they retain the characteristic black tip on the tail. Their habitat is forest and the forested edges of agricultural fields. Prey in the wild consists of small mammals and birds and they kill with a bite to the back of the neck. Short-tailed weasels like to reside in other animals’ underground dens, typically those of chipmunks. Long-tailed weasels like to den in the cavities among tree roots and under stumps. They bear litters of four to nine pups in the spring.
In New Hampshire the weasel family includes four other small mammals—minks, martens, otters and fishers. Elsewhere in the country relatives include wolverines, badgers, and ferrets.
The mink is the closest relative in terms of size. Dark brown with a white patch on the chin, mink favor an aquatic habitat. They den in streambank cavities and abandoned muskrat dens and eat small mammals, frogs, fish, and birds. Once prized for their fur, the value has decreased significantly in recent years. Typical litters number four and are born in the spring.
Mink are excellent swimmers. Once, while fishing from the shore of a lake I watched a small shoreline commotion approaching and froze in place to watch. The commotion turned out to be a mink carrying a freshly killed gray squirrel nearly its own size. When it was easier to travel on dry land it did so and when it was easier to swim, that’s what it did. When it encountered me standing there it swam out about twenty yards and swam an arc around me. I assumed it was carrying this meal home to a den of pups.
The biggest weasel relative is the dark brown river otter, weighing as much as twenty pounds. Their webbed feet make them exceptional swimmers, able to stay underwater for nearly a quarter mile. While sightings are not common, they leave signs of their presence like shoreline bank slides in mud or snow. Fish are their primary food, along with frogs, small mammals and birds. They den in natural cavities and abandoned beaver lodges.
I’ve watched otters drive fish up against beaver dams in order to catch a meal. Watching a family of otters swimming is a lot like trying to count those woodpile weasels the way they disappear underwater and surface as they travel or frolic.
Another large member of the weasel family is the fisher, often referred to as a fisher cat. Like its other relatives it has a long body. Fishers have dark brown to black fur and Teddy Bear ears. Excellent climbers, they are as much at home in the trees as on the ground. They have two types of dens. Maternity dens are always in hollow trees. Temporary dens can be anywhere. This animal likes to travel stone walls and is often sighted sniffing the base of trees to determine if there might be prey above. Prey animals include small to medium size mammals. Fishers are one of the only animals to feed on porcupines. Years ago, New Hampshire trappers live-trapped these animals to establish populations in other states, like Pennsylvania.
American martens are another weasel-related furbearer found in the northern portion of the state. They are mink-size with a lighter brown color. Mostly nocturnal, they are great climbers. Their preferred habitat is boreal forests dominated by spruce. Once favored for their fur, martens in New Hampshire have been protected in New Hampshire for nearly ninety years now. In addition to small mammals this animal will eat frogs, earthworms and fruits.
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