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Friday, December 19, 2014

Last winter on a morning commute a strange ghostly creature ran across the road before me near the Lockport Nature Trail.

I was startled by — and appreciative of — that sighting.

For most people, it probably wouldn’t be anything to write home about because it was a wee mammal, no bigger than a squirrel. It was a short-tailed weasel, more commonly known as the ermine.

It was an exciting experience for me as it was my first encounter with an ermine in its winter coat. I had seen them before in the summer, when they look like an entirely different, maybe even average, animal.

In the winter, though, they are something special.

The ermine's fur in winter is ghost-white and highly coveted. (PHOTOS 

Many locals have had the good fortune of seeing a mink in their lifetime. The ermine is closely related to it, but smaller and sleeker. One might say they look like a squirrel but with a long neck.

They are 8 to 12 inches long with 2 1⁄2 to 4 inches of that being the tail.

In the summer they are varying shades of brown above – ranging from a chestnut hue to a coffee brown – with white below. Come winter, that coat changes to all white except the tip of its tail which becomes black.

That transition allows it to hide from predators like hawks and foxes.

Where to find ermine

Short-tailed weasels are not overly abundant in Niagara County nor are they especially uncommon, either. They are just rarely seen because they are mostly nocturnal, though you will encounter them during the day, too, especially if you are an early riser and like to take nature hikes when the sun comes up.

Eastern Niagara County offers a perfect environment for them. They like the brushy areas — like hedgerows — around farms, and open woodlots, especially if there is a small stream nearby. They live in those hedges and venture out to the fields in search of their prey.

Their homes are burrows found under logs, stumps and rocks, and most of their burrows are stuffed full of mouse fur.

Weasels are “bloodthirsty” 

In the summer, the short-tailed weasel a 
brown top and a white underbelly.
Ermine might end up being one of the more hyperactive animals you’ll ever encounter. It seems like they are always moving, even running, rarely stopping for a leisurely stroll. With that sort of relentless nervousness comes a crazy metabolism. It seems like they are always hunting and always eating, despite their thin appearance.

Ermine are carnivores, and may be the best mousers of the animal kingdom, even better than cats, foxes or owls. To that end, they are considered beneficial to dairy farms (where mice abound in the feed lots) and alfalfa fields (where voles can be quite a problem).

They will attack small rodents and other animals with lightning-like speed and incredible precision. They always go for the base of the skull, usually succeeding with just one bite – they clamp on and don’t release till the fighting stops. It’s not that they are strangling the critters – they are actually crushing or piercing parts of their skull.

They have been known to attack larger animals, too, like baby rabbits, and will use the same means of attack, even ridiculously riding the larger animal like it’s a rodeo or something.

The ermine’s cousin, the long-tailed weasel, is a little larger and has been known to be the bane of hen houses (anyone who has watched older cartoons from the 1940s or 1950s will be familiar with that recurring theme). The ermine, though, won’t do that. They have a hunger for mammal blood.

One ermine can kill a dozen mice in one day. It won’t eat them all at once and will stash them and come back and eat them when their hunting efforts have proven fruitless.

Weasels are fearless

Being small, ermines have a lot of predators. Being mouse-eaters, they have a lot of competition, too.

They are game for both. Despite their size, weasels are expert fighters, and will tangle with animals much larger, including dogs, always putting up a good fight.

They also have a defense mechanism. Like skunks they release a really nasty musk when attacked (they just can’t spray it like skunks can).

Man is the ermine’s worst enemy

The poor ermine is victim of Mankind’s vanity.

Their white winter fur is attractive and extremely soft. Women, especially Europeans, value that fur as coats and accessories. An ermine coat can be incredibly expensive, something only the ultra-rich can afford.

It’s probably because a lot of work – and animal lives – go into an ermine coat.

This isn’t a beaver or a fox we’re talking about, where it doesn’t take too many animals to make a big fur. We’re talking about an animal the size of a red squirrel. Think of how many squirrels it would take to make a coat. Some estimates have it pegged at 180 to 200 short-tailed weasels being needed to make one coat.

That sort of harvest can really decimate the population in a given area.

The populations of most animals trapped for their pelts aren’t so adversely affected by the fur trade. A good case can be made for some animals that trapping actually creates a better, healthier population.

Not with the ermine, which is sad.

Hopefully you get a chance to see one of these interesting creatures this winter, but not in someone’s coat. Hopefully its alive and giving you quite the display as it masks itself in the snow in hot pursuit of its next meal.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he, too, gets whiter in the winter months. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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