The word weasel can conjure up some interesting mental images. Weasels come in all shapes and sizes from tiny to formidable. Several weasel species occupy local creeks, meadows, mountainsides and pine forests. Weasels are also common in fur coats.
All weasels are carnivores; they are predators that hunt and eat meat. Their tastes are diverse, but their reputation for appetite and ferocity is consistent.
Take the short-tailed weasel for instance, also known as an ermine. Weighing only ounces, this tiny little meat eater is feisty and efficient. Hunting, hunting, hunting, they bound around covering lots of ground quickly trying to pick up on a scent or a squeak from a mouse. They kill a mouse and then cache it in a safe place, kill another and cache it too. They kill the full amount of food for the day, and then they feast eating one-third of their body weight each day in meat. A hungry weasel keeps its edge.
The short-tailed weasel is white in winter with a black tip on its tail, and brown and white in the summer. It is shaped long and skinny like a hot dog so it can chase mice and ground squirrels into their burrows. Because of this body shape, they have a lot of surface area compared to their weight, and therefore lose heat easily. To compensate they must eat an extraordinary amount of meat.
Closely related is the long-tailed weasel, distinguished by its noticeably long 4-6 inch tail. These weasels are also larger overall, and can take larger prey such as young hares. Remember, wherever mice are plentiful, there are weasels. Good places to see long or short-tailed weasels are in fields, meadows, or on ski slopes.
Pine martens, also known as sable, are brown all year round with an orange-yellow throat patch. They are generally found in pine forests. Pine martens are arboreal weasels; that is they hunt in the trees. Squirrels, birds, hares, and pikas are all on the menu. Look for pine marten tracks in pine forests; a set of two footprints in a depression, another set of two, etc. Their tracks often go from tree to tree, and because they only weigh one to three pounds, they do not sink very deeply into the snow.
Pine martens are curious by their nature and are sometimes unafraid of humans. In one close encounter a pine marten climbed on our house while I was outside only twenty feet away. He peeked into the window and came nose to nose through the glass with our cat!
The badger is a powerful weasel of open fields, grasslands, and deserts. This is a weasel that you would not want to have a close encounter with. They are fast-digging weasels and primarily excavate ground squirrel burrows, but are also known to eat mice, rabbits and snakes. Badgers live in underground burrows that can be recognized by their elliptical shaped entrances with a flat bottom. In appearance, badgers look something like a low-slung flattened out raccoon with a bad attitude. Sharp teeth, prominent long claws, a white dorsal stripe from its nose to its back, and a highly-questionable disposition make the badger one intimidating critter.
Other weasels that we hear about are the aquatic weasels of the river courses, mink and otters. Mink feed on muskrats, birds and fish. The otter is the beaver’s worst nightmare. There’s also the wolverine, an animal so ferocious that it can take on a grizzly bear and win.
As you can see, weasels are a diverse bunch, but are all meat-lovers at heart. Weasels belong to a family grouping of mammals called mustelids. They frequently scent mark their territory, so if you catch a skunky whiff while out on the trail near what appears to be a urine patch… think weasel.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.