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8 facts about long-tailed weasels

1. The Long-tailed Weasel, Mustela frenata, is a member of the Mustelidae family, which includes animals such as badgers, skunks, river otters and sea otters.

2. These weasels communicate with squeals and shrieks, plus purrs and trills.

3. An adult male is about 20 inches long, including his long tail. He weighs only 10 to 18 ounces. A female is usually 10 percent smaller.

4. A male Long-tailed Weasel’s territory is between 30 and 40 acres. He spends his time alone, hunting every day. He relinquishes his solitary life to mate in late summer.

5. In the spring, the female will give birth to three to eight kits. The kits are blind, nearly hairless and helpless for the first month of their lives.

6. Animals that prey on Long-tailed weasels include foxes, bobcats, gopher snakes, hawks, and owls.

7. The tail of a Long-tailed weasel has a black tip. These weasels have been observed using the tip of their tail to mimic their head, causing preying animals to miss them.

8. Their eyes are black, but if caught by a headlight at night, they glow a bright, emerald-green.

She is quite striking with her supple, slim body, short legs and small head. Her silky fur is brown on her back and head, with lighter color underneath. She has a distinctive white mark on her forehead, and her chin and paws are white. Her cat-like tail is tipped in black. She is a Long-tailed weasel, and while she looks cute with her short ears and black eyes, she is an embodiment of ferocity and cunning.

She has successfully raised her family of six kits. The growing kits are about to leave her, beginning their independent lives. She knows now, August, is time to attract a male to impregnate her once again.

Long-tailed weasels leave their scent by means of a strong anal gland. They don’t spray their musk like skunks; they rub their bodies over various surfaces to mark their territories, to discourage predators, and to attract a mate.

The female weasel lays down her scent. A solitary male will pick it up and arrive to mate. The male is soon on his way, because other females await.

Dennis and Linda Latona had a sighting of a Long-tailed weasel while staying on the Point Arena Lighthouse grounds, and the speed of the animal made it hard to capture with a camera. Dennis tells the story:

“I scrambled to get my Canon Rebel XT, and tried to get as many photos as possible. The weasel would pop (no pun intended) out of one hole and look around, then disappear, only to pop up from another hole, 20 to 30 feet or more away. I never knew how fast they could run ... Weasels are very hard to track with a camera above ground, and impossible to track when scampering underground.”

Long-tailed weasels live in burrows, which they have purloined from animals they have preyed on, such as chipmunks. They also make dens under stumps or rock piles. Their favorite food is rodents, and as rodent hunters they are seen as a boon to humans. Like bobcats, they also love chickens and seem to go into a frenzy, killing every chicken in a coop. Bobcats and weasels are good climbers, so overhead protection of chickens is a must.

These weasels have flexible backs that allow them access to burrows of rodents smaller than they are. They run close to the ground, dive down a burrow, snag an unsuspecting rodent, dispatch it with their strong incisors, and bring their meal back to their home burrow. They have been described as “small bolts of brown lightning,” in that you only get a moment to see them before they are gone.

Richard Kuehn and Dean Schuler had a Long-tailed weasel pay a visit to their studio on The Sea Ranch one year. Rich’s first thought was, “Was that a rat?” He then noted the tail was a long as its body. The weasel, thought to be a young one, soon hightailed it out of there.

Weasels have an amazingly high metabolic rate, which requires them to eat about a third of their body weight every day. They are smart, relentless hunters with well-developed senses of smell, hearing and sight. Along with being good climbers, they can also swim. Mother Nature gave these animals a lot of tools.

8 facts about long-tailed weasels

1. The Long-tailed Weasel, Mustela frenata, is a member of the Mustelidae family, which includes animals such as badgers, skunks, river otters and sea otters.

2. These weasels communicate with squeals and shrieks, plus purrs and trills.

3. An adult male is about 20 inches long, including his long tail. He weighs only 10 to 18 ounces. A female is usually 10 percent smaller.

4. A male Long-tailed Weasel’s territory is between 30 and 40 acres. He spends his time alone, hunting every day. He relinquishes his solitary life to mate in late summer.

5. In the spring, the female will give birth to three to eight kits. The kits are blind, nearly hairless and helpless for the first month of their lives.

6. Animals that prey on Long-tailed weasels include foxes, bobcats, gopher snakes, hawks, and owls.

7. The tail of a Long-tailed weasel has a black tip. These weasels have been observed using the tip of their tail to mimic their head, causing preying animals to miss them.

8. Their eyes are black, but if caught by a headlight at night, they glow a bright, emerald-green.

Jim Sullivan is a fourth generation Sonoma County resident. He’s a certified animal tracker who often teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College. He wrote, “Several of my students have been telling me they regularly see weasels in Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol. Apparently, they are quite habituated and have been coming out of the ground and playing in plain sight on the soccer fields and elsewhere. I see them quite a bit, but not regularly.”

Photographer Steve Pearce has been observing the weasels at Ragle. “The Long-tailed weasels at Ragle Ranch Park are often seen playing with each other, chasing one another through the many gopher holes in the fields. At times it seems they are putting on a show for the visitors. Popping straight up out of a hole, spinning around and straight back into another hole. They are very curious animals; I’ve watched them sit still as if they are listening to the people and dogs at the park.”

There is a lot still to learn about these elusive animals. They are thought to live two or three years, though one in captivity lived to exceed eight years. One fascinating fact about the females is that, while they are impregnated now, their fertilized eggs won’t be implanted on their uterine walls until around March. This allows them to time the birth of their kits in the spring, when rodents and other prey such as rabbits are plentiful.

At birth, the kits weigh little more than a tenth of an ounce. This allows their mothers to stay slim, as a pregnancy bulge would doom them from hunting. They are helpless with their eyes closed. After a month of nursing, the kits will finally open their eyes to the world around them.

Whether it’s out at the coast or in the grasslands inland, long-tailed weasels are an important part of the ecosystem, and are thriving here in Sonoma County.

Jeanne A. Jackson is the author of Mendonoma Sightings Throughout the Year. Jackson regularly posts nature photos of the Coast on her website. Dennis Latona shares his love of nature photography on his website. Learn more about animal tracker Jim Sullivan and his upcoming SRJC class on his website.

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