Winter Weasel: Now You See Me, Now You Don't!

By Brendan J. Whittaker

On a recent late afternoon (before this week’s snow!), I was yarding some harvested trees from our farm woodlands here in far northeastern Vermont.  My tractor path led across one of our frozen icy crop fields, snowless and colored mud-brown, so unusual here in late winter.

Suddenly a flash of bright white caught my eye. “Weasel!” Gorgeous in its winter fur, it headed across the field quite purposefully, as though he/she knew exactly where it was headed and intended to arrive there, my presence not mattering. 

Winter weasels are usually a quick flash of white, and I always feel lucky to see them. More likely to see their tracks than the furtive animal itself. Sometimes I’ll catch one slipping behind our warm kitchen chimney when one chooses to overwinter in our house. "Now you see me...flash! you don't!"  After, we're apt to say, "Did I really just see what I think I did?" Then we reflect with gratitude on the harvest of house mice our winter guest must be reaping. But this outdoor sighting was a good one, perhaps a minute and a half, the best weasel view I've ever had, as I sat motionless on the idling tractor. 

The animal, with no great haste, half-circled me to my east, vivid against the brown, frozen open space. Its coat was brilliant spotless white, intensified by the rays of the setting sun. The white fur was broken in just two places:  its coal black eye, which it kept locked on me as it progressed. The other was the black tip of its tail, a distinctive mark on both of our weasel species here in New England. The weasel tipped its tail jauntily as it went along, and gave me one last flaunt before it disappeared into brush at the end of the field.

In New England we have two weasel species: the long-tailed (which I saw from my tractor), (Mustela freneta) and the short-tailed, usually called the ermine (Mustela erminea cicognanii) when it assumes its winter coat. At our northern latitude, both species turn white in winter. More southerly weasels – called “stoats” in Europe, may stay more brown coated.

Ermine fur has been prized in former times as a mark of status and honor, adorning the robes of judges, royalty, and popes.

Weasels are ferocious hunters. Homeowners who keep chickens in this area may know this all too well. When weasels attack a flock, not content with one or two, they will quickly slaughter all they can find in the poultry pen or chicken house, as we learned many years ago. Their long slim bodies can slither through amazingly tiny entrances in what the chicken keeper may think is a totally weasel-proof pen. A colleague, who is a professional Wildlife Biologist told me recently that he thought his own hen flock was weasel-proofed, until, finding all the birds dead one morning, searched and searched for the mustelid's entry place. He finally located it: the small bored hole through which the electric wire for the henhouse heat lamp. He described the hole as barely big enough to squeeze the wire through, but Mr or Ms. weasel had been successful in getting in! 

Some of us who have lived in the North Country for a long time will remember the WMTW-TV weather report from the summit of Mt. Washington. Marty Engstrom was a long time weather reporter up there, rather famous for his humorous grimace he'd sign off following his professional, rather dry weatherman 's forecast. 

Marty and the other crew had a cat there on summit, which we'd view occasionally during the telecast. They also referred to what we thought was an imaginary pet named "Herman the Ermine."  Night after winter night, Herman might be mentioned, his activities described, but he was never seen. They obviously were making the whole story up....Until!  One memorable night, there was Herman! On a table in front of Marty, undeniably winter white, black tail and nose, showing off for the TV. camera. A real-deal weasel-ermine, with his weatherman hosts,  in their warm winter habitat at 6,288-feet in elevation. It's many years ago now, but I think I recall that Herman the Ermine gave us all his own weasel- grimace, just like Marty's as they signed off for the night.

Brendan Whittaker is an ACT Advisor, and a member (past chair) of the Lands Committee. He is a professional forester, and served as Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources in Vermont. He lives in Brunswick, Vermont.