Summit Outside: Ermine, that cute little weasel
A friend of mine was setting up his ski shop in Frisco when he saw what he described as: “this cute little feller” darting around the shop. What he later determined to be an ermine has kept him frequent company, even getting as close as a few feet away. The little critter seems to be at home somewhere in or near the shop. He said the last time he saw it the coat was turning color. The ermine will probably keep the store free of mice and rodents and they are known to be curious little creatures and will dart around sneaking into holes. Watch out for the ski boots!
The ermine is a member of the weasel family. When we think of weasels, we think of the refrain in the song: “Pop! goes the weasel.” Weasels do pop their heads up when disturbed. They are close cousins to the ferret and mink. There are two types of weasels in Colorado: the long-tailed weasel and the ermine, or short-tailed weasel. Both of these species have black-tipped tails, but they are distinguished from each other by size: The long-tailed are 14 to 18 inches long, and short-tailed weasels or ermine are 8 to 10 inches long, with a tail less than one-third the length of their body. Males are 20 percent larger than females. The coat changes with the seasons and camouflages it from predators. Both species turn white in winter, except for the tip of the tail, which is black, and both species are brown in the summer; the ermine has a white belly. The ermine is also called a stoat (Mustela erminea). We find them all over Colorado, although they are most abundant in the mountains at moderate to high elevations, in places like Summit County.
They are very cute animals with a triangular-shaped head; small, round ears; small, bright eyes and long whiskers. When they run, ermines can look as if they are bouncing as they arch their backs, tuck their back feet, then stretch and bound. They can run through snow easily. Ermine are good tree climbers, and can descend head first, in squirrel-like fashion or they can run forward and backward, up and down the side of a tree trunk. They are also good swimmers. They have a keen sense of smell and vision and their claws enable them to dig. Their front feet are smaller than the back feet, which allows them fit into small, tight spaces. They are speedy and stealthy and mostly nocturnal, so you don’t often see them while on a hike or ski through the woods. Despite their small size and short legs, they are fierce hunters and dine on mice, rats, chipmunks, small ground squirrels, rabbits, ground-nesting birds, porcupines, frogs and even fish – and they can capture animals much larger than themselves. They wrap their long body with a flexible spine around the prey and kill it with a quick bite to the base of the skull. The ermine’s predators are owls, foxes, hawks, eagles, coyotes, badgers, wolves and humans.
The ermine digs burrows and is well adapted to living in this harsh environment. They make their dens in the old roots of a tree or in the crevice of a rock, and they also can live in brush, walls, wood piles, barns, old buildings and hollow logs. Ermine sometimes have several dens in different places in their territory, but are generally solitary animals that usually only communicate with other ermine during mating season. Similar to other members of their family like skunks, they have glands that release distinct odors. A male ermine can smell if he has wandered too far into another ermine’s territory, or if there is a female ermine close by.
Ermine mate in the summer and the young, usually four to nine in number, are born the following spring. The female ermine raises the young, and when the kits are eight weeks old the mother teaches them to how to hunt. This is a sort of rite of passage, because after they are successful hunters, female kits are then able to ready to mate and reproduce – but the young females may remain under their mother’s protection in her territory. The male kits however, aren’t ready to mate and leave their mothers until the next spring. The ermine’s life span is 4 to 7 years.
In Europe, ermine fur was a prized for royal clothing. Furriers still use it to trim parkas and slippers. The ermine is not endangered, and in areas like Alaska, locals welcome them because they frequently roam uninhabited cabins, killing and eating unwanted pests.
So what about that song, “Pop! Goes the Weasel?” Some historians claim it was a refrain in an Old English dance, as performed at royal and nobility balls. Over the years people tried to add lyrics to the popular tune. The following verse had been written by 1855 when it was quoted in a performance at the Theatre Royal: “Up and down the City Road, In and out the Eagle, That’s the way the money goes, Pop! goes the weasel.”
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching
microbiology Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now
pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.
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