59 White Weasel
PUTORIUS ERMINEA.--Linn [Mustela frenata] WHITE WEASEL.--STOAT. [Long-tailed Weasel] PLATE LIX--MALE AND FEMALE in summer pelage. P Hyeme alba; cestate supra rutila, infra alba caudae apice nigro.
CHARACTERS. White, in winter; in summer, brown above, white beneath; tip of the tail, black. SYNONYMES. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Briss. Regne An., p. 243, 2. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Linn., Syst. Nat., 12. i., p. 68. 7. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Schreb., Saugth., p. 496, 11 t. 137. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Erxleben Syst., p. 474, 13. VIVERA ERMINEA, Shaw, Gen. Zool., i., 2 p. 426 t. 99. VIVERA ERMINEA, Pennant, Arctic Zoology, i., p. 75. HERMINE, Button, C. C., p. 240, t. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Parry's First Voyage, Sup. 135. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Parry's Second Voy., App. 294. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Franklin's First Journey, p. 652. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Godman, Ame. Nat. Hist., vol. i., p. 193, fig. 1. MUSTELA ERMINEA, Harlan, p.62. PUTORIUS NOVEBORACENSIS, Dekay, Nat. Hist. New-York, p. 36. DESCRIPTION. Body, long and slender, with a convex nose and forehead; limbs, short, and rather stout; tail, long and cylindrical; moustaches, long, extending beyond the ears; ears, low, broad and round, do not entirely surround the auditory opening, sparingly covered with short hairs on both surfaces. There are five toes on each foot, the inner toe much the shortest; the toes are clothed with hairs, covering the nails; fur, soft and short; tail, hairy, and bushy at the end. There are two glands situated on each side of the under surface of the tail, which contain an offensive white musky fluid. COLOUR. In winter, in the latitude of Pennsylvania and New-York, all the hairs are snowy white from the roots, except those on the end of the tail, which for about one and three-fourth inches is black. We received specimens from Virginia obtained in January, in which the colours on the back had undergone no change, and remained brown; and from the upper and middle districts of South Carolina killed at the same period, when no change had taken place, and it was stated that this, the only species of Weasel found there, remained brown through the whole year. These specimens are now in our possession, and we have arrived at the conclusion that the farther South we advance, the less perfect is the change from brown to white. We have specimens from Long Island, obtained in winter, which retain shades of brown on the head and dorsal line. Those from the valleys of the Virginia mountains have broad stripes of brown on the back, and specimens from Abbeville and Lexington, S. Carolina, have not undergone the slightest change. We were informed by our friend Mr. BROMFIELD an eminent botanist of England, that in the Isle of Wight, the place of his residence, the Ermine underwent only a partial change in winter. In summer, the upper surface of the body is of a chesnut-brown colour, a little darker on the dorsal line; under surface, the upper lips to the nose, chin, throat, inner surfaces of legs, and belly, white; the line separating the colour of the back from that on the under surface, is very distinct, but irregular, and in some specimens, the white on the belly extends further up along the sides than in others. Whiskers white and black; the former preponderating; end of tail, as in winter, black. DIMENSIONS. Inches. Old male. Nose to root of tail,. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 1/2 Tail (vertebrae), . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 1/2 Tail to end of hair, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 Breadth between the ears, . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 1/4 Length of head,. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Stretch of legs from end, to end of claws,. . . . . . . . 14 Length of hind foot, to end of nails, . . . . . . . . . 1 3/4 Length of fore-foot, to end of nails, . . . . . . . . . 1 1/2 Black tip of tail, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 HABITS. The name of Ermine is associated with the pride of state and luxury, its fur having from time immemorial been the favourite ornament of the robes of princes, judges and prelates. From its snowy whiteness it is emblematic of the purity which they ought to possess. To us the Ermine, in its winter dress, has always appeared strikingly beautiful. On a wintry day, when the earth was covered with a broad sheet of snow, our attention has sometimes been arrested by this little animal peering out from a log heap, or the crevices of a stone fence; its eyes in certain shades of light appearing like sapphires, its colour vicing in whiteness and brilliancy with the snowy mantle of the surrounding landscape. Graceful in form, rapid in his movements, and of untiring industry, he is withal a brave and fearless little fellow; conscious of security within the windings of his retreat among the logs, or heap of stones, he permits us to approach him to within a few feet, then suddenly withdraws his head; we remain still for a moment, and he once more returns to his post of observation, watching curiously our every motion, seeming willing to claim association so long as we abstain from becoming his persecutor. Yet with all these external attractions, this little Weasel is fierce and bloodthirsty, possessing an intuitive propensity to destroy every animal and bird within its reach, some of which, such as the American rabbit, the rutted grouse, and domestic fowl, are ten times its own size. It is a notorious and hated depredator of the poultry house, and we have known forty well grown fowls to have been killed in one night by a single Ermine. Satiated with the blood of probably a single fowl, the rest, like the flock slaughtered by the wolf in the sheepfold, were destroyed in obedience to a law of nature, an instinctive propensity to kill. We have traced the footsteps of this bloodsucking little animal on the snow, pursuing the trail of the American rabbit, and although it could not overtake its prey by superior speed, yet the timid hare soon took refuge in the hollow of a tree, or in a hole dug by the marmot, or skunk. Thither it was pursued by the Ermine, and destroyed, the skin and other remains at the mouth of the burrow bearing evidence of the fact. We observed an Ermine, after having captured a hare of the above species, first behead it and then drag the body some twenty yards over the fresh fallen snow, beneath which it was concealed, and the snow tightly pressed over it; the little prowler displaying thereby a habit of which we became aware for the first time on that occasion. To avoid a dog that was in close pursuit, it mounted a tree and laid itself flat on a limb about twenty feet from the ground, from which it was finally shot. We have ascertained by successful experiments, repeated more than a hundred times, that the Ermine can be employed, in the manner of the ferret of Europe, in driving our American rabbit from the burrow into which it has retreated. In one instance, the Ermine employed had been captured only a few days before, and its canine teeth were filed in order to prevent its destroying the rabbit; a cord was placed around its neck to secure its return. It pursued the hare through all the windings of its burrow and forced it to the mouth, where it could be taken in a net, or by the hand. In winter, after a snow storm, the rutted grouse has a habit of plunging into the loose snow, where it remains at times for one or two days. In this passive state the Ermine sometimes detects and destroys it. In an unsuccessful attempt at domesticating this grouse by fastening its feet to aboard in the mode adopted with the stool pigeon, and placing it high on a shelf, an Ermine which we had kept as a pet, found its way by the curtains of the window and put an end to our experiment by eating off the head of our grouse. Notwithstanding all these mischievous and destructive habits, it is doubtful whether the Ermine is not rather a benefactor than an enemy to the farmer, ridding his granaries and fields of many depredators on the product of his labour, that would devour ten times the value of the poultry and eggs which, at long and uncertain intervals, it occasionally destroys. A mission appears to have been assigned it by Providence to lessen the rapidly multiplying number of mice of various species and the smaller rodentia. The white-footed mouse is destructive to the grains in the wheat fields and in the stacks, as well as the nurseries of fruit trees. LE CONTE's pine-mouse is injurious to the Irish and sweet potato crops, causing more to rot by nibbling holes into them than it consumes, and WILSON's meadow-mouse lessens our annual product of hay by feeding on the grasses, and by its long and tortuous galleries among their roots. Wherever an Ermine has taken up its residence, the mice in its vicinity for half a mile round have been found rapidly to diminish in number. Their active little enemy is able to force its thin vermiform body into the burrows, it follows them to the end of their galleries, and destroys whole families. We have on several occasions, after a light snow, followed the trail of this weasel through fields and meadows, and witnessed the immense destruction which it occasioned in a single night. It enters every hole under stumps, logs, stone heaps and fences, and evidences of its bloody deeds are seen in the mutilated remains of the mice scattered on the snow. The little chipping or ground squirrel, Tamias Lysteri, takes up its residence in the vicinity of the grain fields, and is known to carry off in its cheek pouches vast quantities of wheat and buckwheat, to serve as winter stores. The Ermine instinctively discovers these snug retreats, and in the space of a few minutes destroys a whole family of these beautiful little Tamiae; without even resting awhile until it has consumed its now abundant food its appetite craving for more blood, as if impelled by an irresistible destiny it proceeds in search of other objects on which it may glut its insatiable vampire-like thirst. The Norway rat and the common house-mouse take possession of our barns, wheat stacks, and granaries, and destroy vast quantities of grain. In some instances the farmer is reluctantly compelled to pay even more than a tithe in contributions towards the support of these pests. Let however an Ermine find its way into these barns and granaries, and there take up its winter residence, and the havoc which is made among the rats and mice will soon be observable. The Ermine pursues them to their farthest retreats, and in a few weeks the premises are entirely free from their depreciations. We once placed a half domesticated Ermine in an outhouse infested with rats, shutting up the holes on the outside to prevent their escape. The little animal soon commenced his work of destruction. The squeaking of the rats was heard throughout the day. In the evening, it came out licking its mouth, and seeming like a hound after a long chase, much fatigued. A board of the floor was raised to enable us to ascertain the result of our experiment, and an immense number of rats were observed, which, although they had been killed on different parts of the building, had been dragged together, forming a compact heap. The Ermine is then of immense benefit to the farmer. We are of the opinion that it has been over-hated and too indiscriminately persecuted. If detected in the poultry house, there is some excuse for destroying it, as, like the dog that has once been caught in the sheepfold, it may return to commit farther depreciations; but when it has taken up its residence under stone heaps and fences, in his fields, or his barns, the farmer would consult his interest by suffering it to remain, as by thus inviting it to a home, it will probably destroy more formidable enemies, relieve him from many petty annoyances, and save him many a bushel of grain. Let us not too hastily condemn the little Ermine for its bloodthirsty propensities. It possesses well-developed canine teeth, and obeys an instinct of nature. Man, with organs not so decidedly carnivorous, and possessed of the restraining powers of reason and conscience, often commits a wanton havoc on the inferior animals, not so much from want of food, as from a mere love of sport. The buffalo and the elk he has driven across the Mississippi, and their haunts are now restricted to the prairies of the far West. Even now thousands are slaughtered for amusement, and their tongues only are used, whilst their carcasses are left to the wolves. He fills his game bag with more woodcock, partridges and snipe, than he requires; his fishing-rod does not remain idle even after he has provided a full meal for his whole family; and our youngsters are taught to shoot the little warbler and the sparrow as a preparatory training for the destruction of larger game. The Ermine is far from being shy in its habits. It is not easily alarmed, and becomes tolerably tame when taken young, for we have on several occasions succeeded in our attempts at domesticating it, but it appeared to us that these pets were not quite as gentle as many ferrets that we have seen in Europe. When not kept in confinement, they were apt to stray off into the fields and woods, and finally became wild. The tracks of this species on the snow are peculiar, exhibiting only two footprints, placed near each other, the succeeding tracks being far removed, giving evidences of long leaps. We have frequently observed where it had made long galleries in the deep snow for twenty or thirty yards, and thus in going from one burrow to another, instead of travelling over the surface, it had constructed for itself a kind of tunnel beneath. The Ermine is easily taken in any kind of trap. We have on several occasions, when observing one peeping at us from its secure hole in the wall, kept it gazing until a servant brought a box trap baited with a bird or piece of meat, which was placed within a few feet of its retreat. The Ermine, after eyeing the trap for a few moments, gradually approached it, then after two or three hasty springs backwards returned stealthily into the trap, seized the bait, and was caught. We find in our note-book the following memorandum: "On the 19th June, 1846, we baited a large wire trap with maize: on visiting the trap on the following day we found it had caught seven young rats and a Weasel; the throats of the former had all been cut by the Weasel, and their blood sucked; but what appeared strange to us, the Weasel itself was also dead. The rats had been attracted by the bait: the Weasel went into the trap and killed them; and whether it met its death by excessive gluttony, or from a wound inflicted by its host of enemies, we are unable to determine. This species does not appear to be very abundant anywhere. We have seldom found more than two or three on any farm in the Northern or Eastern States. We have ascertained that the immense number of tracks (often seen in the snow in particular localities were made by a single animal, as by capturing one, no signs of other individuals were afterwards seen. We have observed it most abundant in stony regions: in Dutchess and Ontario counties in New-York, on the hills of Connecticut and Vermont, and at the foot of the Alleghanies in Pennsylvania and Virginia. It is solitary in its habits, as we have seldom seen a pair together except in the rutting season. A family of young, however, are apt to remain in the same locality till autumn. In winter they separate, and we are inclined to think that they do not hunt in couples or in packs like the wolf, but that, like the bat and the mink, each individual pursues its prey without copartnership, and hunts for its own benefit. The only note we have ever heard uttered by the Ermine is a shrill querulous cry: this was heard only when it was suddenly alarmed, or received a hurt, when its sharp scream was always attended with an emission of the offensive odour with which nature has furnished it as a means of defence. Although nocturnal in its habits, the Ermine is frequently met with at all hours of the day, and we have seen it in pursuit of the common rabbit under a bright shining sun at noon-day. We doubt whether the Ermine ever digs its own burrows, and although when fastened to a chain in a state of confinement we observed it digging shallow holes in the ground, its attempts at burrowing were as awkward as those of the rat; the nests we have seen were placed under roots of trees, in stone heaps, or in the burrows of the ground squirrel, from which the original occupants had been expelled. The rutting season is in winter, from the middle of February to the beginning of March. The young, from four to seven, are born in May, in the latitude of New-York. We were informed by a close observer, that in the upper country of Carolina, the young had been seen as early as the 25th of March. The colour of the young when a week old, is pale yellow on the upper surface. The Ermine avoids water, and if forcibly thrown into it, swims awkwardly like a cat. It does not, like the fisher and pine marten, pursue its prey on trees, and seems never to ascend them from choice; but from dire necessity when closely pursued by its implacable enemy, the dog. One of the most singular characteristics of this species, viz., its change of colour from brown in summer to pure white in winter, and from white in spring to its summer colour, remains to be considered. It is well known that about the middle of October the Ermine gradually loses its brown summer-coat and assumes its white winter-pelage, which about the middle of March is replaced by the usual summer colour. As far as our observations have enabled us to form an opinion on this subject, we have arrived at the conclusion, that the animal sheds its coat twice a year, i.e., at the periods when these semi-annual changes take place. In autumn, the summer hair gradually and almost imperceptibly drops out, and is succeeded by a fresh coat of hair, which in the course of two or three weeks becomes pure white; while in the spring the animal undergoes its change from white to brown in consequence of shedding its winter coat, the new hairs then coming out brown. We have in our possession a specimen captured in November, in which the change of colour has considerably advanced, but is not completed. The whole of the under surface, the sides, neck and body to within half an inch of the back, together with the legs, are white, as well as the edges of the ears. On the upper surface, the nose, forehead, neck, and an irregular line on the back, together with a spot on the outer surface of the fore-leg, are brown, showing that these parts change colour last. In reference to the change of pelage and colour as exhibited in spring, we add some notes made by the senior author of this work, in March, 1842, on a specimen sent to him alive by OGDEN HAMMOND, Esq. The Weasel this evening, the 6th of March, began to show a change of colour; we were surprised to see that all around its nose, the white hair of its winter dress had changed suddenly to a silky black hue, and this extended to nearly between the ears. Here and there also were seen small spots of black about its rump, becoming more apparent toward the shoulders, and forming as it were a ridge along the back of the animal. March 10th. By noon the change was wonderfully manifested. The whole upper surface of the head had become black to the eye, as well as the ridge of the back, the latter part having become quite clouded, and showing an indescribable motley mixture of closely-blended white, black, and blackish brown. 18th. This day the change of colour reached the root of the tail, where it formed a ring of about one inch, of the same reddish black colour. All other parts remained white, slightly tinged with pale lemon colour. It fed, as we perceived, more voraciously than ever since we have had it in our possession. No less than three or four mice were devoured to-day, and what is very strange, it left no remains of either hair, skull, feet, or any other part of these animals; and on this day, the 18th of March, it ate a very large piece of fresh beef, weighing nearly half a pound. 19th. Last night our Weasel made great progress, for this morning we found the coloured ridge on the back broader and less mottled. The posterior coloured part of the head had joined the ridge of the back. The posterior part of the hind legs had become brown, and we observed a small spot the size of a sixpence on each upper part of the thighs. At this juncture we think the animal is beautiful. 22d. This morning we found all the white hair on the outward ridge of the back had fallen, and portions of the thighs and shoulders had become broader; the coloured parts were of a rich brown to the very nose, and there existed indications of small dark spots coming from the sides of the belly, somewhat like so many beads strung on a thread, separated from the lower edge of the back ridge by a line of white of about half an inch. The weasel continues as lively as ever. When asleep, it curls its body around, and the tail encircles the whole animal, the end covering the nose. The eyes appear to be kept carefully uncovered. The general tints of the coloured parts of this Weasel were very much darker than in any other specimen which we have in our collection. When angry, it emitted a sharp shrill cry, and snapped with all its might at the objects presented to it. It was very cleanly in its habits, never rendering its sleeping apartment disagreeable. 28th. Our Weasel got out of its cage by pushing the wires apart, passing through an aperture not exceeding five-eighths of an inch, as we suppose by putting its head diagonally through the bars. The door and windows of our room were closed, however, and, when we entered, our little fellow looked at us as if well acquainted, but soon ran behind a box. It devoured last night at least half a pound of beef, kept in the room for its day's ration. We placed the cage, with the door open, on the floor, and by walking round the box that concealed it, the animal was induced to run towards the cage, and was again secured in it. We have often observed this species whilst retreating; if near its place of concealment, it does so backwards, and we observed the same movement when it passed from one section of its cage to the other, dragging its food and concealing it among the straw. While we were sitting at a distance from its retreat, it proceeded by leaps very swiftly to within two or three feet of us, when it suddenly threw itself round and retreated backward, as mentioned before. The purplish brown was now augmented on the thighs and shoulders to the knee joints, no white hairs remaining mixed with those that were coloured. Beneath the jaws, separate small brown spots appeared at equal distances, leaving an intermediate space of white, as was the case along the flanks. The root of the tail had acquired no farther change. Since last week our animal has diffused a very strong disagreeable odour, musky and fetid, which may be attributable to this being its breeding season; we observed that the smell was more disagreeable in the mornings and evenings, than at mid-day. April.--On paying our accustomed visit to our Weasel this evening, we found it dead, which put a stop to any further observation of its habits. Its measurements are as follows: Inches. From point of nose to end of tail,. . . . . . . . . . 10 1/2 Tail (vertebrae), . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 Tail to end of hair, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 Height of ear, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3/4 Breadth of ear, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5/8 Fore claws and hind claws stretching out to the black hair of the tail, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 1/4 GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION If, as we feel confident after having examined more than a hundred specimens from both continents, the American Ermine is identical with that of Europe, it will be found to have the widest range of any quadruped at present known. It exists in the colder portions of Asia, and in the temperate, as well as in all the Northern States of Europe. We have seen specimens from England and Scotland, from France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. In America, its geographical range is also very extensive. Dr. DEKAY, (see Fauna, N.Y., p. 37) supposes it to be a northern animal, found as far south as Pennsylvania. We agree with him in his supposition that it is a northern animal, as it is only found in the Southern States where the country is mountainous or considerably elevated. It exists in the polar regions of America as far north as FRANKLIN, PARRY, RICHARDSON, LYON and other explorers were able to penetrate. It is found in Nova Scotia and Canada, and in all the Eastern and Northern States. We observed it along the whole chain of mountains in Virginia and North Carolina. We obtained a specimen from Abbeville in South Carolina, from our friend Dr. BARRETT, a close observer and a good naturalist; and another from Mr. FISHER, from Orangeburg District. We have ascertained that it exists in the mountains of Georgia, where we are penning this article. We saw a specimen procured by TOWNSEND in Oregon, and have heard of its existence in North California. It is, however, not found in the maritime districts of any of the Southern States, and in Carolina and Georgia does not approach within fifty miles of the seaboard; and even when it exists on the most elevated portions of country, it is, like the rutted grouse in similar localities, a rare species. GENERAL REMARKS. Writers on Natural History, up to the time of HARLAN, GODMAN and RICHARDSON, without having instituted very close comparisons, considered the species existing in Asia, Europe and America, to be identical. At a somewhat later period, however, naturalists, discovering on patient and close investigation that nearly all our species of quadrupeds as well as birds differed from the closely allied species on the eastern continent, began to doubt the identity of the Ermine existing in Europe and America. We have been unable to ascertain whether these doubts originated from any difference in specimens from these countries, or from a belief that so small an animal could scarcely be found on both continents, and thus prove an exception to a general rule. We admit that were an animal restricted to the temperate climates on either continent, and not found in the polar regions, there would be a strong presumptive argument against the identity of closely allied species existing in Europe and America. The Ermine of the eastern continent is known to exist where the two continents nearly approach each other, perhaps occasionally have been united by a solid bridge of ice, and probably may be so again during some of the coldest seasons of the polar winters and being capable of travelling on the snow, and resisting the severest cold, this animal is fully able to cross from one continent to the other, like the white bear, or Arctic fox, species which are admitted as identical on both continents. Our species, moreover, is known to exist equally far north, and has been traced nearer to the poles than even the musk-ox. We observed, in the Museum of the Zoological Society, that the specimen brought by RICHARDSON was regarded as a new species by C. L. BONAPARTE, Esq., (now Prince of Musignano.) In the recent work of Dr. DEKAY, we perceive it has been described as a new species, under the name of Putorius Noveboracensis. In a spirit of great fairness and candour, however, he states: "I have never seen the true Ermine in its summer dress, and only know it from PENNANT's description: ears edged with white; head, back, sides and legs, pale tawny brown; under side of the body white; lower part of the tail brown, end black." The only point of difference, then, is in the ears edged with white. PENNANT's specimen unquestionably was obtained at the period of time when the animal had only partially changed colour, as in all these cases the specimens before us, both from Europe and America, have their ears edged with white. We have compared a great number of specimens from both continents, and have several of each lying before us; the edges of the ears in summer colour are all brown, and neither in size, dentition, nor colour, can we observe a shade of difference.