I saw a weasel recently when I was driving home at night. It ran across the road like a white flash. It was a treat to see one because they are one of our most secretive animals. The weasel we have in Nova Scotia is the short-tail weasel, or ermine. They are members of the family of animals known as the mustelidae which also includes otter, mink, marten and fishers.
Weasels are rather unique among fur bearers as they changes colour over the year, similar to a snowshoe hare. Brown, with a white chest in summer, they become pure white in the winter except for the tip of their tail, which is black.
Weasels arenâ€™t large animals. Males are larger than females and even a large one would only reach 30 cm (12 inches) in length, including the tail, but for its size I think it is one of the fiercest animals in the woods. They have no hesitation in attacking an animal many times their own size. Although mice are their main food item they may also feed on a wide variety of prey items ranging from rats and birds to frogs, snakes, squirrels and rabbits. Their streamlined bodies allow them to crawl under rocks and into burrows after their prey. They will also climb trees to attack squirrels and feed on birds. When hunting is good weasels will stockpile food in a cache which they will feed on later, a tactic that helps get them through lean times.
Iâ€™ve had a few encounters with weasels over the years that gave me respect for their resourcefulness and hunting ability. The first was when we lived in an old house we shared with a population of mice. I was kept busy running a mouse trap line all winter but one day I was reading in the living room when a small white head popped out of the cold air return duct for the oil furnace. A weasel had discovered the good mice hunting in the house and was travelling through the furnace ducts to catch them. Another time I found one of our daughterâ€™s 4-H rabbits dead in its hutch. Concerned about the remaining bunnies I set a trap next to the dead rabbit and next morning I had a weasel.
The pelt of weasels harvested during their winter, or white phase, has traditionally been prized by royalty and the church. Ceremonial robes were often trimmed with ermine. Fishing flies tied with weasel hair is probably the closest I will come to royalty. In Britain weasels are known as stoats and their hair has been used for many years in fly-tying. One of the earliest hair wing salmon flies, the Stoatâ€™s Tail, uses the black hairs from the end of the tail as the wing. This pattern has a black body with a silver rib and should fish well on our rivers. Other patterns include the Thunder Stoat, as well as the silver or gold Stoatâ€™s Tail.
Donâ€™t forget that next weekend, Feb. 15 and 16, is the Winter Sport Fishing weekend and residents, and non-residents, may fish the areas open for winter fishing without a licence. The Pictou County Rivers Association will hold their annual trout fishing derby at Gairloch Lake on Saturday, Feb. 15, with a snow date of the 16th.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.