Recently, on a sun-splashed day on the Bartlett Road in Belgrade, a short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea) in its winter white caught my eye, darting furtively along the top of a dirty snowbank right beside my vehicle. I stopped and so did the little predator. He eyed me suspiciously before retreating to the woods.

My passing pickup had interrupted its hunting day for a short time while giving me a brief glance at a little-known Maine denizen. Weasels prove common enough in this state but are seldom seen except by trappers, even though these animals may be moving night or day.

The last time I saw a short-tailed weasel was a decade ago, also in late February. The little critter was in my refrigerator, dead, of course, a corpse to scrutinize for a couple days, a great learning experience.

At the time, I was living at The Ridges in Hallowell. A vehicle had hit the hapless animal on the private road leading to the apartment-buildings complex, killing it without causing any visible damage. This animal seldom gets run over, but its carelessness turned into my good fortune.

I picked it up with a sandwich baggie on my hand, dropped it into a quart-sized, zip-lock bag, squeezed out all the air and locked the seal tightly – all done with great care to keep the weasel smell on the inside of the baggie, so as not to foul my refrigerator.

A similar species to the short-tailed version is a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata). Both species have elongated, cylindrical bodies, a perfect shape for crawling into rodent holes such as those used by chipmunks and even voles, the latter a favored forage. Weasels go into these subterranean haunts to find a meal and often use the prey’s home for their own shelter.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to distinguish between the short-tailed and long-tailed versions, but the recently sighted weasel on the snowbank looked small enough to identify by tail length alone. The two-inch appendage made me sure it was indeed a short-tailed weasel – probably a female.

Size doesn’t always work for identification because the two species overlap in measurements. In short, a small long-tail may be close in size to a large short-tail:

The short-tailed weasel, a circumpolar species with a more northern distribution, measures 71⁄2 to 131⁄2 inches from the tip of the nose to the tail, and its tail runs about 15⁄8 to 31⁄2 inches.

The long-tailed weasel, which doesn’t extend far into Canada, is 11 to 22 inches long from the nose to tail, and its tail is 31⁄8 to 63⁄8 inches long.

These two species have a brown coat in summer that turns white in winter, the only weasels with that trait in Maine. In the brown phase, the short-tailed weasel also has white feet, but the long-tailed has brownish feet.

Interesting to me, in the southern part of their range where snow seldom falls, these two species stay brown in winter, which reminds me of studies done with varying hares kept in enclosed buildings. Researchers alter artificial light to mimic different seasons, and they can make hares turn white in summer and brown in winter – opposite of nature’s scheme. It’s also proof that the length of daylight each day and the slant of the sun’s rays kick off the seasonal change.

Our other three weasels – the fisher, pine marten and mink – stay dark year-round. All five belong to the Mustelidae, which also includes skunk, otter, wolverine, ferret and more.

By the way, unless someone has a trapping license or some sort of collecting permit, it’s illegal to possess this fur-bearing animal.
We have so many laws aimed at stopping poaching that it makes being an amateur naturalist tough. In short, someone may find an interesting road-killed critter once every 10 years, so it’s difficult to plan for a permit for such an event.

One thing is certain, though, as John Audubon taught us. Having a critter in hand surely aids the naturalist and artist in scrutinizing every detail.

I cannot leave this topic of weasels without mentioning a point. Apparently, a study three or four decades ago revealed that weasels successfully prey on American woodcock – a major predator of this secretive, solitary bird. Perhaps the drop in fur prices has increased the weasel population, which in turn has added to this migratory bird species steadily declining numbers. It’s just another strike that exacerbates the more serious problem of decreasing habitat for woodcock since the 1970s.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

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