Sunday, November 7, 2010


Nature: Weasels intriguing despite bad rep
Sunday, November 7, 2010 02:56 AM

The Columbus Dispatch

Jim McCormac | For The Dispatch

"I have come up with a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel." - Blackadder from the Blackadder the Third TV series

Cunning? Maybe. Industrious, energetic, well-furred and savage? Definitely.

Ohio's seven Mustelids (the weasel family) are a diverse lot. Our most malodorous mammal, the striped skunk, is one. So is the badger. So are river otters, the clown princes of our waterways.

The other four are classic weasels: the least weasel, the long-tailed weasel, the mink and the ermine.

Ermines are very rare, with animals turning up occasionally in extreme northeastern Ohio.

Least weasels are the smallest carnivores in the world. They probably occur statewide but aren't often detected. An adult least weasel is tiny, stretching just 7inches and weighing about the same as eight nickels. The pint-sized brutes are every bit as ferocious as their larger relatives, though. If least weasels were the size of deer, we'd be in trouble.

Long-tailed weasels are also found throughout Ohio. Like other weasels, they're fierce hunters and strictly carnivorous.

People prone to anthropomorphic embellishments have used words such as bloodthirsty to describe long-tailed weasels. The animals do, at times, seem to have a bit of serial killer in them; more than a few chicken farmers have opened the coop to find all of their hens slain by a weasel.

Chicken-killing isn't typical, though; mice, birds, chipmunks and shrews are their common fare. Weasels are programmed to kill more than they can eat and cache the rest for lean times, so the appearance of one in a chicken coop can spell disaster.

The world's best-known furbearer is the mink, a weasel that is common in Ohio. Minks are coveted worldwide for their silken, lustrous fur, and coats made of mink remain a major status symbol. High-end mink coats can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.

Ironically, mink stems from a Swedish word that means "stinky animal." These semi-aquatic weasels have powerful anal glands and can spray a foul substance when agitated.

Minks frequent stream banks and pond margins throughout the state. A mink in motion is a sight to see. It resembles a mammalian Slinky, moving in gracefully fluid, undulating bounds. While secretive and seldom seen, minks are big enough to notice: A male might measure 2 feet and weigh more than 2 pounds.

As with most of their weasel brethren, minks are ferocious hunters. Fish are a dietary staple, and minks will plunge to depths of up to 15 feet to capture them. They'll also catch small mammals - baby rabbits are a favorite - and songbirds. Victims are dispatched with a Spock-like pinch (bite) on the neck. Turnabout is fair play: The mink is a common prey of the great horned owl.

Minks repel other minks that enter their turf. When males do hook up with females, they establish a stream-bank burrow in which to raise their pups. Or, more in keeping with their character, a mink will storm a muskrat lodge, kill and eat the occupant, and appropriate the lodge as its own.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Further afield

• Veteran bird-watcher Mike Flynn will lead a Columbus Audubon trip to local hotspot Hoover Reservoir next Sunday. Waterfowl are the primary target. Meet at 1 p.m. at the parking lot on the east side of Sunbury Road, just above the dam. For details, visit

• As part of a Worthington Garden Club lecture series, I will present a program on native plants for the urban landscape - including information about many of the animals that can be attracted with the appropriate flora - at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Griswold Center, 777 High St., Worthington. All are welcome.


Birding is Fun! said...

I watched a Long-tailed Weasel stalk a covey of California Quail in the Boise, Idaho foothills. It certainly went after the young and the weak trying to isolate them from the flock. Momma Quail put up enough of a fuss to hold the weasel at bay.

Jim McCormac said...

Yes, long-tailed weasels are brutes. I have a friend who has had one get in the chicken coop a few times, and kill every hen!

Kathi said...

I thought that skunks, which were once considered a sub-family of the Mustelidae, had been moved to their own family, Mephitidae, on the basis of DNA evidence.

Randy Kreager said...

I have been surprised at how many minks I have seen in Harris Twp. in the last several years. I have seen 2-3 live one and, at least, 3 dead on the road. I find myself wondering if their population is on the increase?

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for the update, kathi - did not realize skunks had been split off. Don't know if minks are on the increase randy, but i hope so!