Winter Weasel

By Anne Cissel

This cute, fuzzy animal is also a fast, fierce hunter.

Tap image for a closer look.

Leaping through the snow, the furry creature above knows how to survive in a wintry world. The stoat (STOHT), also called the short-tailed weasel, lives in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. This small mammal is a close cousin of badgers, otters, ferrets, and wolverines.

Some stoats live in snowy areas. In the winter, these stoats lose their brown fur and grow white fur. Blending in with the snow helps them hide from larger predators, such as foxes or hawks. When stoats sport their white coats, people sometimes call them ermine (UR-mun).

Stoats that live where there’s little or no snow stay brown all the time, whether it’s mid-summer or the dead of winter. But even there, they grow a warmer coat in winter. In all seasons, stoats keep that cute black tip on their tails. That’s how you can tell them from other kinds of weasels!

Tap image for a closer look.

The stoat isn’t a big animal (only about a foot long, from nose to tail tip). But it has a BIG appetite. The stoat is a carnivore, or meat-eater, and loves to eat mostly rodents, including mice or voles. But it doesn’t shy away from hunting animals much bigger than itself, such as rabbits. It also dines on baby birds and eggs, as well as fish.

The stoat’s long, slender, bendy body allows it to squeeze in and out of holes in the ground (burrows) and in between rocks. Its good eyesight and sense of smell help it find food, too. It moves quickly and, unlike other weasels, leaps when it runs.

Sometimes, a stoat will fling its body around in a crazy sort of dance. Scientists don’t know why it does this. It may help the stoat catch its prey. A rabbit might pause to watch a stoat jumping sideways and backward and arching its back. (Wouldn’t you?) The stoat could then pounce on the rabbit during that little pause. But the stoat might also just be feeling playful. Or it might be sick and unable to control its behavior.

Male stoats are called jacks, and females are called jills (yes, just like the nursery rhyme). Jacks and jills don’t share dens but will live near each other. Baby stoats are called kits, and usually 6 to 9 kits are born at a time to each stoat mom.

A stoat may have several dens or burrows but doesn’t dig its own. Instead, it uses those of the rodents and other animals it kills. To keep the cold out, a stoat will sometimes use the fur of its prey to line a den’s walls. When it’s not inside a burrow or den, it may find shelter in rotting logs, haystacks, rock piles, or stone walls.

For hundreds of years, people have killed stoats to use their white winter fur for clothing. In fact, in Europe the fur was a sign of royalty and high status. But this doesn’t happen much nowadays. And scientists don’t think stoats are in any danger of becoming rare. So, if we’re lucky, the spunky stoat will always thrive in the wild!

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