The fact that weasels are actually found all around the world, including here in the Pacific Northwest, might be surprising to some. But these nocturnal animals are small, with the largest getting to be only a couple feet long and weigh less than a pound, and their colorings allow for them to blend into their environment! In the Pacific Northwest, there are two weasel species, the long and short-tailed, with the obvious difference being the length of their tail.
Despite their cute faces and small demeanor, weasels are rather violent, bloodthirsty animals. They will eat 40% of their body weight every day and even on a full belly, these animals will kill anything that looks like prey. Sometimes, they’ve been known to take down animals ten times their size! Like stoats, weasels have also been known to do a ‘weasel war dance’ when their prey is cornered but scientists aren’t completely sure why they do it.
The Long-Tailed Weasel
This species can be found from North to South America, stretching from southern Canada to Bolivia and Venezuela. Their habitats tend to be temperate and terrestrial ones, like crop fields, grasslands, and wooded areas. More often than not, these weasels are found in more open habitats than forested ones. Burrows and nests for the long-tailed weasel are often found in hollow logs, under barns, and in rock piles. On occasion, some long-tailed weasels will even take the burrow of their prey.
Long-tailed weasels will shed twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. The length of the day and night actually determines when these weasels shed! In southern populations, long-tailed weasels are a cinnamon brown color with a yellow-white underbelly all year round. Northern long-tailed weasels, on the other hand, are cinnamon brown with a white underbelly in the summer and all white in the winter.
The Olympic Short-Tailed Weasel
Found only on the Olympic Peninsula, the Olympic Short-Tailed Weasel is long and slender with short legs and short tails. Their coats are light brown with a yellowish underside. Despite their size, these weasels actually prey upon mammals bigger than themselves and will often feed on small rodents. Their slender bodies allow them to chase after rodents into their burrows. Frequently, they’ll kill more than they can eat and bury the rest to eat at a later time.
Unlike other weasels, the Olympic Short-Tailed Weasel doesn’t turn white in the winter, as they stay brown all year round. They’re also great swimmers and found in open habitats near water.
Weasels are a part of the Mustelidae family, which means they’re in the same family as otters, minks, marten, and fishers. As they are strong swimmers, minks are commonly found near bodies of water and can be found all over North America. They’re larger than weasels and their coats are usually a solid dark brown color. Occasionally, they might have a small pale spot on their chin and scattered white spots on their bellies. The undersides of weasels tend to be constantly lighter in color.
While they look similar to weasels, fishers are actually larger (similar to a large house cat) and have a distinctly long and bushy tail. In 2015, a handful of fishers were released in the Washington Cascades after they disappeared from the area in the early 20th century. Martens, on the other hand, are small and rarely weigh more than five pounds and they stay their dark brown color all year round. Unlike the weasel’s slender tail, a marten’s tail is bushy and almost black in color. Their populations have been okay in other areas of the US but in the coastal ranges of Oregon and Washington, it’s been difficult to spot them.
- U.S. denies full protection for Pacific fisher, relative of the weasel by Steve Gorman, Reuters
While weasels are fierce fighters, there are predators that eat them, including bobcats, coyotes, large owls, and even people. While the fur from various animals in the Mustelidae family has been used to make fur coats, it can take as many as 100 minks to do so. All of these animals should be avoided if possible and not just because their wild populations are dwindling. Like skunks, weasels and minks will emit an utterly pungent odor when provoked.
It can be difficult for the average person to tell the difference between a weasel, fisher, mink, or marten. But their size, coloring, and tails are all different! Have you seen a weasel before? Let me know in the comments!