Wild Notes Spring 2010 edition
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Spring 2010

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Cosmo the flying squirrel

 


Wild Watch Marsh Encounter by Heidi Mullendore

The large, heavy snowflakes were hypnotizing as they fell silently among the skeletons of agrimony and ironweed. Almost losing my balance and slipping into the freezing water, I snapped back to the business of hopping awkwardly between snow-covered grassy hummocks in the frozen marsh.

long-tailed weasels are related to skunks and otters

Pausing to pull on my gloves, I craned my neck as a small flock of waxwings bobbed overhead, keening in the wind. A small movement in the grass ahead; I froze on the spot as I caught a flicker of brown in the brush. A longtailed
weasel, its white belly flashing in the dim sunlight, leapt delicately onto a prickly hummock, holding one paw in the air as if to make fun of my clumsy, overbalancing gait. Its intense gaze was almost comical; its wide-open eyes giving it a surprised look as it eyed me up and down.

The alert little long-tailed weasel, Mustela frenata, belonged to the Mustelidae, the bold family that includes skunks, badgers, wolverines, mink, otter and ferrets. The beguiling big-eyed gaze of M. frenata is deceptive, for it is indeed a predator; the kind of predator that demands notice and respect for its efficient hunting methods and brassy behavior.

My ramble brought me through field and marsh; typical habitat for longtailed
weasels. They are most often seen in farmland, brushy fields and hedgerows, usually near wet areas. This glossy specimen stared fearlessly, despite its almost skinny build. Weasels only weigh 250 - 500 grams and yet will take on larger prey. I apparently posed no threat because the brown and white
mottled animal continued nonchalantly on its way, sniffing around before easing into a thick stand of dogwood.

Illustrations by Lisa A. Cook - weasel looking out of hole

Each time I've been fortunate enough to spot a weasel, they've not seemed at all concerned with my presence, an almost unsettling clue to their confidence and intelligence. That unerring, wideeyed gaze is only initially cute, until you realize their forward facing eyes are typical of a predator. Their small
and pointy mouse-like face is set far forward on a long skull. Their skulls,
like those of other mustelids, house a remarkably large brain—imbuing a
peculiar intelligence in such a delicate-looking predator.

Mustela frenata live throughout the United States and parts of Canada, a range that tests their ability to adapt to a wide variety of extremes. Their frail build, however, is deceptive, according to Bernd Heinrich, author of Winter World. "They must contend with intense cold throughout their range, yet
they are small, skinny and poorly insulated with little body fat, all of which facilitate rapid rates of heat loss. To compensate, their resting metabolism is twice that of other animals their size. Yet they have small stomachs and unlike their cousins, the striped skunk, they put on little body fat. As a result, they
have to eat more food per day than any other winter-adapted animals."

The weasel I had seen fit quite nicely among the close trunks of dogwood as it searched for prey. These bold predators consume a wide variety in summer: birds, eggs, insects, rodents and other small mammals. In winter, their diet
turns to rodents and small mammals almost exclusively.

It is their narrow, serpentine build that makes long-tailed weasels excellently designed as predators. Their long, skinny body enables them to follow small mammals and quickly enter their tunnels and burrows. Weasels are opportunistic. They rarely fashion a den or nest of their own; they simply use the living quarters of their victims to eat, rest and even cache food. Much of their time is spent eating and resting in others' quarters before again setting
out to find more food.

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