Wondernose: What animal’s name has become a verb meaning “hunt” or “search”?

by Rebecca Martin | Dec 1, 2023 | 0 comments

This kind of thing happens a lot with our language, Wondernose. Take, for instance, the word “balloon.” You know what a balloon is, but can you also tell me what the word “balloon” means when used as a verb? That’s right. When something “balloons,” it puffs up and becomes lighter and larger. The word “mushroom” could be another example, or “hound.” If you hound someone, you follow him around like a hound tracking a rabbit.

But, no, our mystery animal is not a hound. It is long and slender with a long neck and short legs—just the right shape to enter rabbit burrows or rat holes and chase out the occupants. Yes, Wondernose, our mystery animal has been domesticated for that very purpose—to hunt rats. No wonder its name has become a synonym for “hunt.” Ah, good for you. “Ferret” is the answer to our riddle. So you’ve heard people say, “I’m going to ferret him out,” meaning they’ll find him.

People in Europe have been domesticating ferrets for hundreds of years. There is historical evidence of ferrets being used as rat chasers already in the century before Christ was born. Often when ferrets are used to flush out rats, terrier dogs will stand watch nearby to do the actual killing.

Domesticated ferrets have become so dependent upon man that they will die if left on their own. But their wild counterparts—called the European polecats—have no trouble taking care of themselves. They are good hunters and quite fearless too. One means of defense is the smelly fluid they can spray if provoked.

I know, Wondernose, it’s kind of confusing that we speak of both ferrets and polecats. The names are interchangeable. Often, though, the domesticated polecats are an albino version. They have white or creamy fur and red eyes. These are the ones known as ferrets in Europe.

Here in North America we have—or used to have—a wild species called the black-footed ferret. It has been called North America’s rarest mammal. Years ago they were very plentiful on the Great Plains. Prairie dogs were their main food. But you know what has happened to the Great Plains, Wondernose. The grassy prairie has been turned into farmland, thus destroying the prairie dogs’ habitat. Prairie dogs in their millions were a nuisance, so farmers killed them off. In turn, the black-footed ferret has become extremely rare.

If you ever did meet one of these shy, secretive animals, Wondernose, you wouldn’t forget its appearance. About 2 feet (.6 m) long, black-footed ferrets are dull yellow with a long black-tipped tail—and, of course, black feet. Across its eyes is a distinctive black mask.

Baby ferrets (or polecats) are born in underground burrows. At first they are blind and furless. Not till they’re twenty days old will their eyes open. By about six weeks of age the babies are ready to venture out of the burrow. How they enjoy playing in the sun! But at the first sign of danger, they will tumble over each other as they dive for the safety of the burrow.

The wild polecats of Europe have another name: fitch. Years ago they were trapped for fur, and the fur was sold as fitch.

I wouldn’t blame you, Wondernose, if you feel thoroughly confused by our discussion of ferrets, polecats, and fitches. For a basic review, in Europe it’s only the domesticated polecats that are called ferrets. In North America we have no domestic ferrets—only the wild ones known as black-footed ferrets. Though nearly extinct, they are now making a comeback.

One thing these animals all have in common is that foul-smelling spray for defense. So you see they are similar to weasels, though larger.

There’s another way in which the European polecat resembles the weasel, and that’s in its liking for a meal of chicken. Farmers hardly know how to feel about polecats. Should they hate them for killing poultry—or love them for ferreting out rats?

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