Pop Goes the Weasel

Last spring, we had several encounters with a long-tailed weasel that was probably denned up under the guesthouse. Whether it was only a male weasel, a female with young, or both we never knew because we only saw one weasel at a time.

William and Catherine Plummer, the original settlers in the hollow named for them.

William and Catherine Plummer, the original settlers in the hollow named for them.

Our guesthouse was built in 1865 by the original settler, William Plummer and his 10 sons (one had been killed at the siege of Petersburg during the Civil War). The log cabin they had lived in beneath the knoll where our house now stands had burned to the ground. Their new home had six-pane sash windows and vertical board and batten siding and the central portion was constructed with only a crawl space beneath it.

Ever since, a variety of mammals—porcupines, woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks—have lived under it or in the nearby stone wall. With the stream below, it provides ideal habitat even for long-tailed weasels, because they favor woodland edges with dense cover near a stream and will live near humans if there is abundant food and suitable den sites, all of which describe our guesthouse, our house, and its surrounding habitat.

A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Both our sons, Dave and Mark, in the guesthouse, and I in our sunroom, heard more noise than usual beneath our homes last spring. Then, one morning in mid-May, Mark watched a long-tailed weasel bound under the guesthouse and into its walls and emerge with a mouse dangling from its mouth. That old, porous house provided happy hunting grounds for the weasel.

After all, biologists maintain that deer mice are the second favorite prey of long-tailed weasels, but meadow voles are their favorites and I unwittingly provided an easy source of them. I had been throwing bird seed out on the dirt below our back steps for ground-feeding birds. This not only enticed meadow voles to feed there too, but they constructed several tunnels beneath the seeds so they could quickly grab a seed and duck back into their underground refuge. Then they grew bolder and did not disappear when I looked out at them. I spent several weeks watching them feed side by side with the birds.

A long-tailed weasel carrying a vole Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A long-tailed weasel carrying a vole Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the day before Mark reported his sighting of the long-tailed weasel, the whole area beneath our back porch had been dug up and the meadow voles’ tunnels destroyed. The voles were gone, no doubt victims of one or more weasels. Apparently, long-tailed weasels can easily creep into the burrows of meadow voles and kill them by suffocating, according to biologists and to the video on YouTube I watched which showed a long-tailed weasel doing that.

The long, sinuous bodies of long-tailed weasels enable them to move underground when hunting prey, and while they make their own dens in banks or under stumps, they construct their nests at the end of underground tunnels built by their prey, most notably chipmunks. After they eat their prey, beginning with their heads, hearts and lungs, they use their victims’ fur, along with dried grasses, to line and construct their nests, which are 9 to 12 inches in diameter and often cluttered with the bones of those they kill.

The next morning, as I walked down to the guesthouse, a long-tailed weasel ran up the hill toward our house. I had time to admire its dark brown body, triangular-shaped head, white underparts, and black-tipped tail and the way it bounded along, its back humped when it crossed directly in front of me. It appeared to slip around the foundation of the house probably searching for the several chipmunks that had burrows there.

Long-tailed weasels are generalists both in their habitat requirements and food. They eat 40% of their weight every day and over 90% of their prey consists of small mammals, chiefly rodents including Norway rats and house mice, but also red, gray, fox and flying squirrels, moles, shrews, muskrats, and young cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares.

They are not ruthless killers but cache excess prey for several days for themselves or to feed their young. They don’t suck blood as legend insists, but lap blood that seeps from the back of their prey’s skull after they kill it by holding it down with their feet and body and biting the base of its skull or severing its spinal cord.

Long-tailed weasels also eat deer, beaver, and woodchuck carrion, insects, earthworms, and any birds they can catch on nests. Red-winged blackbirds, tree sparrows, song sparrows, northern flickers, dark-eyed juncos and blue-winged teal have been noted by various observers. In addition, they will raid birds’ nests for eggs. They readily climb trees in pursuit of prey and even though their eyesight is poor, they have excellent hearing and sense of smell, both of which they use to track prey.

Bluebirds on power pole box (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Bluebirds on power pole box (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Knowing all this I was not surprised to watch a weasel run from our garage a couple hundred feet above our house across our driveway to the bluebird box on an electric pole and into the field grasses. The bluebirds had been feeding young but disappeared shortly thereafter and when I checked, the nest was empty.

Still, long-tailed weasels have plenty of enemies including red and gray foxes, coyotes, bobcats, rough-legged hawks, great horned and barred owls, domestic cats and dogs, large snakes and humans. And not all weasels’ hunts are successful as Mark observed.

A meadow jumping mouse (Photo by the Seney Natural History Association on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A meadow jumping mouse (Photo by the Seney Natural History Association on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Early the following evening at 7:45, he set out for a walk in First Field. Suddenly, right at his feet, a long-tailed weasel chased a mouse, totally ignoring Mark. But then the mouse jumped away. It was a meadow jumping mouse, another favorite prey item, but the weasel couldn’t seem to pick up the mouse’s scent even though it kept trying. In the meantime, the meadow jumping mouse was long gone. Finally, the weasel gave up and headed deep into the field for other prey.

That was the last we saw of long-tailed weasels because the grasses and wildflowers on our home grounds and First Field had grown tall enough to hide all small and even medium-sized mammals. But throughout the spring and summer, I would often observe the birds and squirrels in our overgrown front yard scolding and looking down to the ground and I wondered if they were seeing a weasel.

The long-tailed weasel, also called the New York weasel, big stoat, and ermine, is the most common and largest of the three weasel species in Pennsylvania. But unlike the short-tailed weasel and least weasel, which are the true ermines, turning white in winter, the long-tailed weasel only does so in the extreme northern part of our state. It is also the widest ranging weasel in the Western hemisphere, living in all life zones from alpine to tropical except desert from central Canada south through the United States except for the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, and south through Central and South America to Peru and Bolivia.

It is 12 to 17 inches long including its 3.2 to 6.3 inches-long tail. The male’s home range is 25 to 60 acres and includes more than one female. While normally a male may cover 600 feet in hunting, a female covers half that range most days and nights.

The male mates in midsummer when a female is receptive for three to four days, but the embryos only continue to develop in early spring, a process called delayed implantation. So even though gestation is on average 279 days, it takes only 27 days for the embryos to become blind newborns with long white hair and weighing as much as hummingbirds. Altogether, there are four to eight young born in a single litter in April or May.

An adult weasel carrying its infant (Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An adult weasel carrying its infant (Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

At three weeks old, they are trilling and squeaking, like the adults do, they can crawl out of their nest, and their teeth are sharp enough to eat the meat the female has supplied them. Their eyes open at five weeks, they look more like adults, and they are weaned. They are also eating their weight in food daily.

The female continues to bring food to her offspring and takes them hunting until midsummer when they are then on their own. The young females are already sexually mature and mate, but the young males are not sexually mature until they are a year old.

Every time I briefly glimpse a long-tailed weasel, I am reminded of the old children’s song “Pop goes the Weasel,” but after doing a little research, I learned that it was the nonsense name of a popular dance in Victorian England especially in the 1850s. There are many versions of the jig’s lyrics but each verse ends with “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and none had anything to do with the animal.

Still, weasels do pop their heads up when disturbed and so I’ll end this account with the song we sang as children: “All around the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought twas all in fun, pop, goes the weasel.”

 

Adaptation

July, like January, is the most extreme month of its season, and during both months I must adapt to challenging weather if I want to walk our trails and observe wildlife.

Black birches in the forest of Plummer’s Hollow

Black birches in the forest of Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

In January, when the wind is howling and it’s ten degrees Fahrenheit, I wait until mid-morning to venture outside swathed in several layers of clothes.

In July I try to be abroad by 8:30 a.m. dressed in as little as possible. That used to mean shorts and a tank top, but since ticks arrived on our mountain, I pull on long, beige-colored, Permethrin-soaked pants, which I tuck into light-colored socks, and a long-sleeved shirt over a tank top. Then, I put a wide-brimmed hat over my short hair and I’m off.

But last July the heat and humidity on many days was more debilitating than usual. Even 8:30 was too late on many July days for someone as heat-averse as I am.

The morning sun through the fog over the First Field

The morning sun through the fog over the First Field (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

We’ve been told that humans, plants, and wildlife must adjust to our changing climate. In that spirit my husband Bruce suggested I get up at 5:00 a.m., grab a cup of coffee, and go, instead of rising an hour later, preparing and eating breakfast, and following my normal hour of back and neck exercises before venturing outside.

That’s how I became a connoisseur of sunrises. Most dawns I rushed the quarter mile up to the spruce grove and Alan’s Bench at the top of Sapsucker Ridge. One morning the sky was golden and lit up the trees along the trail. On another, a rosy-fingered dawn predicted a clear, hot day ahead.

Near the end of July I watched the sky turn from gold to rose and finally pink before I reached Alan’s Bench. A sudden light flashed on the horizon as the sun appeared over Nittany Mountain, heralded by the drumbeat of a pileated woodpecker and the “witchedy, witchedy” of a common yellowthroat. As soon as it crested the mountain, I looked away from that burning eye that makes life on earth possible.

An ovenbird in Chester County, PA

An ovenbird in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Instead, I sought the sanctuary of the forest as it filtered the fierce light through its green film of leaves.

Although birdsong dwindles in July, I listened to the dawn singing and calling of ovenbirds, red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, eastern towhees, Acadian flycatchers, eastern wood-pewees, hooded and black-throated green warblers in the forest and common yellowthroats, song and field sparrows, indigo buntings, northern cardinals, Carolina wrens, cedar waxwings, and gray catbirds in the fields and yard.

One charmed morning I was serenaded by a chorus of wood thrushes as I walked down our road. The thrush music echoed in the outdoor cathedral of hundred-year-old trees looming overhead. I gave a silent prayer of thanks for their songs and hoped I would live to hear them another year. (I will embed a brief YouTube video of a singing wood thrush.)

On that same dawn walk I startled two does and two fawns that were standing in our stream. The fawns disappeared up the road bank while the does remained watching me for a few seconds before following their offspring.

A black rat snake

A black rat snake (Photo by Tom Walsh in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

I also found a black rat snake sprawled across the road. At first I thought it was dead, but as I stood above it and suggested it get off the road, it twitched its tail and curled up, looking as fierce as it could manage. I stepped carefully around it and continued on my way. Later, after the sun’s red disk shone through the trees and I retraced my steps, the snake had vanished.

Not all days were steamy. Early in the month, I devoted several cooler mornings to taking our 11-year-old granddaughter Elanor on our longer trails, several of which she had never hiked, before she and her parents set off for new lives in Arizona. I didn’t want her to forget the green lushness of a Pennsylvania summer. On one such walk, several almost grown turkey poults flew up in front of us. On another I pointed out blooming rhododendron, wild hydrangea, wood nettle and black cohosh along the road.

But Elanor was most impressed by the abundance of baby cottontail rabbits and adults in our yard, especially one attracted to our veranda. In fact, its cement floor proved to be alluring to a variety of small mammals including chipmunks that seemed affronted by Bruce and my sedentary presence on the veranda.

A long-tailed weasel

A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Bryant Olsen on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We grew accustomed to sitting on our veranda chairs without speaking or moving as rabbits and chipmunks crept closer and closer. One morning, after I returned from my walk at 6:30, we sat there silently gazing at First Field. A long-tailed weasel emerged from beneath a forsythia bush next to the veranda and started toward the chipmunk burrow in the lawn at the far end of the veranda. When I turned to Bruce to see if he noticed the weasel, it dashed back the way it had come.

We remained silent, and a few seconds later, it ran on to the end of the veranda. Again I turned to Bruce and again the weasel retraced its steps. This time it didn’t come back. Bruce didn’t see it either time, but I even glimpsed its white underparts the second time around. This happened the day after my birthday, and I was grateful for my belated gift of a brief moment with an elusive creature.

Four eastern phoebe chicks in their nest

Four eastern phoebe chicks in their nest (Photo by jeffreyw on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On our front porch a pair of eastern phoebes had built their second nest. One early July evening, while Elanor was eating dinner with us on the porch, the four nestlings became four fledglings as one after the other flew over our heads chirping.

Even our back porch was attractive to wildlife. One night I left a planter of house plants I had washed out on the porch to dry. The next morning I found a hole dug in the dirt and muddy raccoon prints on the porch floor.

And of course we had our usual bear sightings. Early in the month our son Steve, driving up our road in the afternoon, had a young cub run in front of his car halfway up the mountain. Near the end of the month, as I reached the top of Sapsucker Ridge, I heard a crash from a tree and caught a glimpse of a bear running downslope toward the interstate.

These glimpses I have of the lives of wild animals and birds are often tantalizing and sometimes I can only guess at their intentions. But I did solve one mystery and its perpetrators.

Norway spruce cones, including one in the lower right on which part of the cone scales have been removed

Norway spruce cones, including one in the lower right on which part of the cone scales have been removed (Photo from the Plant Image Library in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One hot, humid morning inside the Norway spruce grove, I noticed dozens of still-immature spruce cones that had been clipped from the tops of the tallest trees and stripped of their overlapping cone scales. The scales lay in golden-beige heaps at the base of the trees.

Never before had I seen this even though the trees have had mature cones for years. But the acorn crop had failed for two years and I suspected hungry gray squirrels were after the two seeds at the base of each scale. Fourteen days later I spotted a gray squirrel climbing up a cone-laden spruce tree, proving to my satisfaction that they were producing the piles and scatterings of diamond-shaped cone scales throughout the grove.

Later, I read in North American Tree Squirrels by Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski about a study they did in North Carolina of longleaf pine cones. They found that even though the cones of most conifers don’t fully mature until October, they are already nutritious by late July when squirrels sometimes have little else to eat. The North Carolina fox squirrels stripped the longleaf cones the same way our gray squirrels had stripped the Norway spruce cones, by starting at the bottom of a cone and rotating it like an ear of corn as it gnawed off one cone scale at a time.

At the end of the month, after a much-awaited rainstorm the previous evening, I walked Laurel Ridge Trail listening to the same but much quieter suite of singing birds—scarlet tanager, eastern wood-pewee, and red-eyed vireo. I picked up a bird’s nest lined with thin stems and plastered with lichens. The exquisite little nest had blown from a high tree branch in the storm and had been constructed by an eastern wood-pewee.

Later, as I approached our yard, I noticed a male American goldfinch crying on and on from our electric line. Then a large raptor lifted off a yard tree and landed on a low black walnut branch. It was an immature Cooper’s hawk still peering around in search of prey and providing a close look at the white streaks above its eyes and its reddish breast and belly.

As soon as the hawk flew off, the goldfinch was quiet, and a gray catbird and several other birds began calling as if giving an all-clear signal.

July may often be an uncomfortable month to be outside, but my many glimpses of wildlife make every sweaty, buggy walk worth the effort.