There are weasels at the Arboretum!
The weasel family includes weasels, minks, otters, martens, fishers, skunks, badgers, and wolverines.
Paul Rezendes writes: “The weasel’s generic name, Mustela, means ‘one who carries mice.’ The word weasel comes from the Sanskrit visra, which means ‘to have a musty smell.’”
There are two kinds of weasels (in the strict sense) in Oregon–short-tailed and long-tailed. Which one did I see? David Moskowitz has this to say: “These two species can be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish in the field, either from live sightings or tracks. While long-tailed weasels are usually larger than short-tailed weasels, because they are both sexually dimorphic, a slight size overlap exists between large male short-tailed weasels and small female long-tailed weasels. A few minor habitat use distinctions between the two species are also not absolute.” Also, both of these weasels have black-tipped tails. When I looked at my photos, I noticed that this weasel didn’t have a black-tipped tail, which added to the mystery.
Long tail short, sometimes it is best to let go of names. Tom Brown, Jr. reminds us that: “Everything worth knowing about the animal lies beyond the name… Concentrate on concepts, feelings, and sensations. Most of all, concentrate on interacting with the things you encounter in nature.”
That said, what I do know is that this little animal is slender, fast, and action-packed. It can swim, climb trees, travel tunnels, search burrows, explore hollow logs, slide in between rocks, and dive into snow banks. This makes a very skilled hunter.
Out at the Arboretum, they have many small mammals to eat, such as mice, voles, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, and pocket gophers. They will also eat birds, eggs, berries, seeds, and forbs.
This is just a brief introduction to an amazing animal, and I hope that you are inspired to learn more. This encounter always reminds me that there are so many fascinating discoveries to be made in local parks and in my backyard. Nature is an inexhaustible source of wonder. See you out there.
Brown, Tom, and Brandt Morgan. Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking. Berkley trade pbk. ed, Berkley Books, 1983.
Moskowitz, David. Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates. Timber Press, 2010.
Rezendes, Paul. Tracking & the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks & Sign. 2nd ed, HarperCollins, 1999.
I heard some rustling coming from the underbrush at the edge of the forest, and I heard a California ground squirrel and a spotted towhee alarming. As I turned to see what was going on, a rabbit jumped out of the grass and started running down the road. A moment later, a weasel popped out onto the road chasing the rabbit. They zigzagged in and out of the grass a few times and then came back out onto the trail. The weasel caught up to the rabbit and was right behind it. The weasel then jumped on the back of the rabbit and grabbed it behind the head. The rabbit got loose for a moment, and the weasel grabbed it on its throat. As the weasel started running away with the rabbit, it got loose again. The rabbit must be hard to hold through all of that fur. The weasel shot into the grass leaving the rabbit behind. Dazed, the rabbit took a couple of small hops to the edge of the meadow, hunkered down into the long grass, and became as still as a rock. A second later, the weasel came running out of the grass searching for the rabbit. The weasel retraced its steps to within a foot of the rabbit but didn’t find it. Curiously, he even ran over to me a few times, perhaps wondering if I had taken his rabbit. After a few minutes of investigating the area, he decided to move on. Once I thought the coast was clear, I quietly walked over and checked on the rabbit. It peered up at me through the grass and didn’t move a muscle. I decided to move on too and let it recuperate. I was uncertain how bad it was hurt, if at all. I went back the next morning, and it was gone.