Wondernose: What is the world’s second smallest ferocious carnivore that can kill rabbits with ease?

by Rebecca Martin | Apr 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Oh, these little animals are quite the hunters! Mostly they are up and about at night. Weighing only from 2-10 ounces (60-280 g), these animals have long, slender bodies that enable them to slip through tiny crevices. They kill mice and other rodents by biting them at the base of the skull. Even rabbits are no match for these ferocious animals. Our mystery animal will chase the rabbit until the rabbit is fatigued. It then moves in for the kill.

Northern lands are home to these hungry rodents. Few are found farther south than Virginia. All have the intriguing ability to change the color of their coats along with the seasons. In winter they are white, with a black tip to the tail. In summer they are reddish brown.

A weasel! That’s what you think this mystery animal is, Wondernose? Yes, it is a weasel. But what kind of weasel? I’m not talking about the long-tailed weasels you saw in Nature Friend a few months ago.

You are correct. Our mystery animal is the ermine—also called the short-tailed weasel. In Europe it is known as the stoat. Ermines on the whole are smaller than the long-tailed weasels, having a body length of 7-13 inches (18-33 cm). Long-tailed weasels are 11-22 inches (28-56 cm). Another difference is the silkier fur of the ermine.

Now you wonder exactly how an ermine changes color, Wondernose. Is there actually a change in the pigment of the hairs?

No. What happens is a molt. Twice a year the ermine will gradually replace all of its hair with a new coat. This can take a month or two to complete.

Obviously, a white coat in Arctic regions is of great benefit to the ermine. Except for that black spot at the tip of its tail, it will be quite invisible in the snow. Similarly, the reddish-brown is also a good camouflage in the summertime.

April is when most ermine babies are born. There are anywhere from three to thirteen in a litter. They are tiny and pink-skinned at birth, but quickly develop a fuzzy white coat. The black tip on the tail doesn’t show up until the twentieth day.

Where does an ermine make its nest? A variety of habitats are used. Often a den is prepared under a rock. But ermine nests have been found as high as 14 feet (4 m) up a tree in a hollow of the trunk. The nest may be lined with soft rabbit hairs. It’s not hard to guess where they got those!

Ermine babies are big eaters. They will consume half their own weight in food each day.

Ermines don’t get very old. Many may not even reach adulthood. If one lives to be seven or eight years old, they’ve reached old age.

Young ermines like to play too. They will twist, turn somersaults, and pretend to spar with their “fists.” While playing, they often let out happy-sounding noises. Wouldn’t you like to watch ermines at play, Wondernose?

But then there’s the other side to the ermine’s nature. Like all weasels, it is a relentless, bloodthirsty slayer of small animals. It will not merely kill to eat, but it will also kill simply for the sake of killing.

Since many of its victims are mice, we should appreciate these short-tailed weasels. But poultry farmers have a hard time appreciating them. An ermine is happy to kill chickens too. Once it gets into the habit of killing for sport, it will terrorize a flock of chickens. It’s very hard to build a chicken coop that’s tight enough to keep out these slender killers!

I’ve mentioned that the ermine’s European counterpart is called a stoat. Most stoats are considerably larger than the North American ermines, growing up to 17 inches (43 cm) long. Both stoats and ermines have the ability to spray a foul-smelling liquid. Though not as smelly as skunks, they still have a formidable weapon against other carnivores that hunt them. Their chief enemies are hawks and eagles.

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