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.

     White, in winter; in summer, brown above, white beneath; tip of the tail,


     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.


     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.


     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.


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


     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
     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
     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:


     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.