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Least Weasel

Mustela nivalis

Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae

 

Status: Unprotected predator.

 

Identifying Characteristics:  The smallest weasel and smallest carnivore in North America.  Similar to other weasels in color and body form.  Males are larger than females.  Fur is brown above and whitish below during summer.  Entirely white during winter.  No black tip at end of short tail  Total length: less than 10 inches.  Weight: 1 to 3 ounces.

 

Habitat: Variety of habitats, including meadows, fields, brushy areas, and open woods.  Avoids dense forest, prefers ecotones.  Abundance of small mammals is important in determining the local distribution of least weasels.

 

Food Habits: Feeds almost entirely on mice.  Small enough to pursue rodents into runways, burrows, and nest chambers.

 

 Life History: Most active at night.  With abundant food sometimes produces more than one litter per year.  Breeds year round; young born any time of the year; delayed implantation does not occur; litter size usually 4 to 5.

 

Similar Species: Much smaller than the short or long-tailed weasel.  Both short and long-tailed weasels have a black tip on tail.

 

Characteristics
The least weasel is considerable smaller, with a very short tail, and males may measure up to 8 inches in length, while females measure about 6 inches.

 

The least weasel also has a long, slender, muscular body with short legs. The head is small, with beady eyes, small ears and a pointed nose. They move with quick movements and a graceful, bounding gait. All three weasels change color with the seasons, and there is no color difference between the sexes. All the senses are well developed in the weasel.

 

The least weasel lacks the black tipped tail of the other two species.

 

Life Cycle
Both the short tailed and long tailed weasel females mature at 3 to 4 months and males mature at about one year. The breeding season is in July. There is a period of delayed implantation with a gestation period of 9 to 10 months. The period of active pregnancy is 23 to 17 days.

 

Litter sizes varies from four to thirteen, with an average of six to eight. The young are born in April or May in nests constructed in underground dens or hay piles. Mouse nests and burrows are often used and heavily lined with fine grass and mouse fur. The male begins to bring food to the den about 1 month after the young are born. The young are weaned at the end of 5 weeks and are able to hunt for themselves by 7 or 8 weeks of age. The family stays together until late summer and then disperses. The life expectancy of weasels is short, probably less than a year, although they are capable of living as long as 6 years.

 

The least weasel may have three to ten young, but averages five which may be born at any time of the year but most frequently are born in late winter.

 

Food
Weasels prey on small rodents such as mice, rats, voles, hares, rabbits, and chipmunks. They also take shrews, birds, birds eggs, frogs, bats, insects, earthworms and may occasionally kill domestic chickens. The least weasel depends almost exclusively on mice for food.

 

The weasel hunts by tirelessly and persistently investigating every small hole, crevice, bush or rock pile it encounters. They will track prey by following their scent trails and generally attack prey by ambushing and pouncing on it. They are very quick and kill by piercing the base of the skull with their teeth. The weasel frequently kills more than it can eat and often caches leftover food. The weasel can consume up to one third of its own weight in a 24 hour period.

 

Habits
Weasels are curious, alert and bold. They are persistent hunters who seldom remain long in their dens and may be abroad hunting at any hour, although they are usually most active at night. Weasels are active year round. Weasels occasionally hunt in pairs but, for the most part, are solitary except during breeding and rearing season. They are good swimmers and can also climb trees. All species emit a strong musk odor when alarmed, and the weasel may stamp its feet when annoyed. Weasels may mark their trails with droppings. Home ranges very from 30 to 400 acres.

 

Population
Weasel populations often cycle with mouse populations. Several parasites can infect weasels, such as guinea worm and kidney worms. These probably have little impact on the population.

 

Weasels are subject to predation from hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, dogs, cats and man.

 

In agricultural areas, weasels are more common due to the practice of storing grain which provides ideal conditions for mice.

 

Habitat
Weasels prefer woodlands or open country with hedgerows, thickets or fence rows. They are usually found near water but are not semi-aquatic as is the mink. They frequent stone piles, brush heaps, wood piles, hay stacks, log piles and old abandoned buildings.

The least weasel has a variety of habitats including meadows, fields, brushy areas, and open woods. It avoids dense forests.

 

The dens of weasels are shallow chambers about 6 inches underground with two to three entrances and are lined with mouse fur and grass.

 

Economic Value
The fur of the least weasel is seldom taken and is so small that it is of little or no value in the fur trade.

 

Weasels play an important role in helping to control rodent populations.