Pop Goes the Weasel

Last spring, we had several encounters with a long-tailed weasel that was probably denned up under the guesthouse. Whether it was only a male weasel, a female with young, or both we never knew because we only saw one weasel at a time.

William and Catherine Plummer, the original settlers in the hollow named for them.
William and Catherine Plummer, the original settlers in the hollow named for them.

Our guesthouse was built in 1865 by the original settler, William Plummer and his 10 sons (one had been killed at the siege of Petersburg during the Civil War). The log cabin they had lived in beneath the knoll where our house now stands had burned to the ground. Their new home had six-pane sash windows and vertical board and batten siding and the central portion was constructed with only a crawl space beneath it.

Ever since, a variety of mammals—porcupines, woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks—have lived under it or in the nearby stone wall. With the stream below, it provides ideal habitat even for long-tailed weasels, because they favor woodland edges with dense cover near a stream and will live near humans if there is abundant food and suitable den sites, all of which describe our guesthouse, our house, and its surrounding habitat.

A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Both our sons, Dave and Mark, in the guesthouse, and I in our sunroom, heard more noise than usual beneath our homes last spring. Then, one morning in mid-May, Mark watched a long-tailed weasel bound under the guesthouse and into its walls and emerge with a mouse dangling from its mouth. That old, porous house provided happy hunting grounds for the weasel.

After all, biologists maintain that deer mice are the second favorite prey of long-tailed weasels, but meadow voles are their favorites and I unwittingly provided an easy source of them. I had been throwing bird seed out on the dirt below our back steps for ground-feeding birds. This not only enticed meadow voles to feed there too, but they constructed several tunnels beneath the seeds so they could quickly grab a seed and duck back into their underground refuge. Then they grew bolder and did not disappear when I looked out at them. I spent several weeks watching them feed side by side with the birds.

A long-tailed weasel carrying a vole Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
A long-tailed weasel carrying a vole Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the day before Mark reported his sighting of the long-tailed weasel, the whole area beneath our back porch had been dug up and the meadow voles’ tunnels destroyed. The voles were gone, no doubt victims of one or more weasels. Apparently, long-tailed weasels can easily creep into the burrows of meadow voles and kill them by suffocating, according to biologists and to the video on YouTube I watched which showed a long-tailed weasel doing that.

The long, sinuous bodies of long-tailed weasels enable them to move underground when hunting prey, and while they make their own dens in banks or under stumps, they construct their nests at the end of underground tunnels built by their prey, most notably chipmunks. After they eat their prey, beginning with their heads, hearts and lungs, they use their victims’ fur, along with dried grasses, to line and construct their nests, which are 9 to 12 inches in diameter and often cluttered with the bones of those they kill.

The next morning, as I walked down to the guesthouse, a long-tailed weasel ran up the hill toward our house. I had time to admire its dark brown body, triangular-shaped head, white underparts, and black-tipped tail and the way it bounded along, its back humped when it crossed directly in front of me. It appeared to slip around the foundation of the house probably searching for the several chipmunks that had burrows there.

Long-tailed weasels are generalists both in their habitat requirements and food. They eat 40% of their weight every day and over 90% of their prey consists of small mammals, chiefly rodents including Norway rats and house mice, but also red, gray, fox and flying squirrels, moles, shrews, muskrats, and young cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares.

They are not ruthless killers but cache excess prey for several days for themselves or to feed their young. They don’t suck blood as legend insists, but lap blood that seeps from the back of their prey’s skull after they kill it by holding it down with their feet and body and biting the base of its skull or severing its spinal cord.

Long-tailed weasels also eat deer, beaver, and woodchuck carrion, insects, earthworms, and any birds they can catch on nests. Red-winged blackbirds, tree sparrows, song sparrows, northern flickers, dark-eyed juncos and blue-winged teal have been noted by various observers. In addition, they will raid birds’ nests for eggs. They readily climb trees in pursuit of prey and even though their eyesight is poor, they have excellent hearing and sense of smell, both of which they use to track prey.

Bluebirds on power pole box (Photo by Mark Bonta)
Bluebirds on power pole box (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Knowing all this I was not surprised to watch a weasel run from our garage a couple hundred feet above our house across our driveway to the bluebird box on an electric pole and into the field grasses. The bluebirds had been feeding young but disappeared shortly thereafter and when I checked, the nest was empty.

Still, long-tailed weasels have plenty of enemies including red and gray foxes, coyotes, bobcats, rough-legged hawks, great horned and barred owls, domestic cats and dogs, large snakes and humans. And not all weasels’ hunts are successful as Mark observed.

A meadow jumping mouse (Photo by the Seney Natural History Association on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
A meadow jumping mouse (Photo by the Seney Natural History Association on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Early the following evening at 7:45, he set out for a walk in First Field. Suddenly, right at his feet, a long-tailed weasel chased a mouse, totally ignoring Mark. But then the mouse jumped away. It was a meadow jumping mouse, another favorite prey item, but the weasel couldn’t seem to pick up the mouse’s scent even though it kept trying. In the meantime, the meadow jumping mouse was long gone. Finally, the weasel gave up and headed deep into the field for other prey.

That was the last we saw of long-tailed weasels because the grasses and wildflowers on our home grounds and First Field had grown tall enough to hide all small and even medium-sized mammals. But throughout the spring and summer, I would often observe the birds and squirrels in our overgrown front yard scolding and looking down to the ground and I wondered if they were seeing a weasel.

The long-tailed weasel, also called the New York weasel, big stoat, and ermine, is the most common and largest of the three weasel species in Pennsylvania. But unlike the short-tailed weasel and least weasel, which are the true ermines, turning white in winter, the long-tailed weasel only does so in the extreme northern part of our state. It is also the widest ranging weasel in the Western hemisphere, living in all life zones from alpine to tropical except desert from central Canada south through the United States except for the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, and south through Central and South America to Peru and Bolivia.

It is 12 to 17 inches long including its 3.2 to 6.3 inches-long tail. The male’s home range is 25 to 60 acres and includes more than one female. While normally a male may cover 600 feet in hunting, a female covers half that range most days and nights.

The male mates in midsummer when a female is receptive for three to four days, but the embryos only continue to develop in early spring, a process called delayed implantation. So even though gestation is on average 279 days, it takes only 27 days for the embryos to become blind newborns with long white hair and weighing as much as hummingbirds. Altogether, there are four to eight young born in a single litter in April or May.

An adult weasel carrying its infant (Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
An adult weasel carrying its infant (Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

At three weeks old, they are trilling and squeaking, like the adults do, they can crawl out of their nest, and their teeth are sharp enough to eat the meat the female has supplied them. Their eyes open at five weeks, they look more like adults, and they are weaned. They are also eating their weight in food daily.

The female continues to bring food to her offspring and takes them hunting until midsummer when they are then on their own. The young females are already sexually mature and mate, but the young males are not sexually mature until they are a year old.

Every time I briefly glimpse a long-tailed weasel, I am reminded of the old children’s song “Pop goes the Weasel,” but after doing a little research, I learned that it was the nonsense name of a popular dance in Victorian England especially in the 1850s. There are many versions of the jig’s lyrics but each verse ends with “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and none had anything to do with the animal.

Still, weasels do pop their heads up when disturbed and so I’ll end this account with the song we sang as children: “All around the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought twas all in fun, pop, goes the weasel.”







5 responses to “Pop Goes the Weasel”

  1. Dennis G Rice Avatar
    Dennis G Rice

    Very informative and well-written.

  2. Paula Avatar

    Fascinating, Marcia! I have only seen one weasel in my life, a Least Weasel in winter white at our former house near Geeseytown. I saw it on our woodpile, which was near the bird feeders, so we had created a feeding station for it.

  3. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thanks Dennis. Paula, We’ve had several encounters with the weasel species here. One winter an ermine ran around in the backyard. We saw it trying to catch voles. Another time I sat on a log and a long-tailed weasel ran up to me on the log, gave me a look, retreated, then came back for a second look before running away.

  4. Jan Nicodemus Avatar
    Jan Nicodemus

    I never knew much about weasels. Now I do. Thank you.

  5. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    You’re welcome, Jan.

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