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Solving Problems with Nature - Naturally

ERIC P. ORFF
Certified Wildlife Biologist
Wildlife Author - Wildlife Lecturer - Wildlife Photographer
Non-Lethal Control of Bats since 1983
nhfishandwildlif@aol.com

Wildlife

New Hampshire Weasels

New Hampshire has weasels in abundance. In fact, there are six members of the mustelidae, or weasel family. They include (from smallest to largest): ermine (also known as the short-tailed weasel), long-tailed weasel, pine marten, mink, fisher and river otter. All of these, except the marten, are common to abundant throughout most of New Hampshire, but most of us can count on our hands the number of times we have seen any one of them. They may be abundant, but are scarce to our view. Two species, the ermine and long-tailed weasel, disappear nearly completely in winter by turning white as snow! If you can spot any weasel, then you are doing remarkably well!

Weasels, by their very nature, keep themselves scarce. Most of them are either most active after dark, or, as in the case of the otter, are active at first light of morning. They leave an abundance of sign in our forests or along our rivers. When the Fish and Game Department did numerous winter snow tracking census lines in the early 1980s, fishers were the most frequently observed tracks -- even more common than squirrels! Fisher are found practically everywhere there is plentiful cover of softwoods, including our backyards. Their distinctive two-two-two (: : : :) cantered prints in the snow leave ample signs to find. Learning the signs of these small predators will open a whole new world of wildlife for you to discover in your area.

Let's start with the smallest of these weasels, the ERMINE. While the term "ermine" is often used to describe either the short-tailed or the long-tailed in their winter-white fur phase, it is the short-tailed that is actually called an ermine year-round. The ermine lives in the more northern reaches of North America, from northern California to well into the Rockies and east to northern Pennsylvania and all of New Hampshire. Ermine are generally 7 to 8 inches in total length, with fur covering even the bottoms of their feet in the winter. In the winter, they are all white except for a black-tipped tail. Males are considerably larger than females, as is the case with all weasel family members. Very small mammals, like mice, voles and shrews, make up more than 80 percent of their diet. Over the years, I've had numerous reports of weasels invading old colonial houses in the winter, no doubt there to capture the abundance of mice found in these old buildings.

The LONG-TAILED WEASEL, at about 11 or 12 inches long, is actually only slightly longer, or larger, than the ermine. Body measurements are needed to distinguish a male ermine from a female long-tailed. They both turn pure white, except for the black-tipped tail, in winter. Long-tailed weasels are widespread around the world and are one of the most widely distributed mammals known. From the Arctic to the tropics, you can find this little member of the weasel family, although it does not range nearly as widely across northern Canada as its smaller relative, the ermine. Similarities include a diet of mostly small mammals and a home range of just a few acres, making these weasels very similar.

The PINE MARTEN is a larger cousin, generally at least twice as long as a long-tailed weasel at about 20 to 25 inches long. Pine marten are on the state's threatened species list. They have been making a remarkable return on their own the last two decades. Currently, there is a small, but growing, population in northern Coos County. Pine marten have been described as golden brown, with a very distinctive yellow chin patch. Marten are an animal of the far north, preferring the spruce-fir thickets of the Great North Woods. In an ongoing New Hampshire study, nearly 30 pine marten were live-trapped and tagged in the northeastern side of the state near the Maine border. Marten, like the other weasels, prefer small prey mammals like voles, but also will eat fruits and nuts.

If you live near a stream, river or pond, MINK are some of your neighbors. Mink have a dark chestnut-brown colored pelt, only interrupted sometimes by a white chin patch. They are similar in size to the marten. Mink are semi-aquatic in nature, although they can and do range distances from water. Their typical home range is nearly a mile of a river corridor. Their aquatic dwelling shows up in their diet -- which is 31 percent fish, 25 percent frogs and 23 percent crayfish -- although small mammals are often part of their prey base, as well. Mink range widely over North America, except the desert southwest, and are common throughout New Hampshire. Like other weasels, they are rarely seen.

FISHER, often nicknamed "fishercats" in New Hampshire, are one of the most common land predators in the state -- and one of the least well understood. Fisher are a mammal of great mystique here; probably more folklore abounds for this species than any other in the state. The screaming of a fox in the night is often attributed to the fisher. "Fishercats" are blamed for dozens of missing cats each year. Do they eat cats? Sure, as do foxes, coyotes, owls and -- more likely -- a local SUV. It is the nature of a housecat injured on a highway to seek a hiding place to die, but you can bet a "fishercat" will be blamed for its disappearance. In 1979 and 1980, Fish and Game collected more than 1,000 fisher and checked their stomach contents to determine what they had been feeding on. Cat hair was found in exactly...one! Housecats are not part of their regular diet, but, like the other predators, fishers are opportunists. If a housecat is out catching mice and squirrels, especially at night, competing with these predators for the prey they depend on, then the cat may become part of the natural cycle of things. Mother Nature plays no favorites. To keep your cat alive, keep it inside.

Fisher are considerably larger than marten at 35 to 40 inches long. Likewise, their home range is considerably larger. In a New Hampshire study in the 1970s, fisher had a home range of about 600 acres. Fisher live-trapped in New Hampshire have been translocated to three other states to help re-establish populations. In 1975, 25 were transferred to West Virginia in exchange for 25 wild turkeys. In the early 1980s, about 30 were transferred to Connecticut; and in the mid 1990s, 175 were shipped to Pennsylvania to re-establish an extirpated population there.

The biggest of New Hampshire's weasels is the RIVER OTTER, at 25 to 40 inches long. These stately creatures of the water are dark chocolate brown in color. Otters may roam as much as nine square miles. As with mink, fish and crayfish make up the majority of their diet. Like other weasels, otters are rarely seen, despite their abundance. The otter sign that I frequently see is where they slide along the snow in the winter.

I've frequently watched otter family groups in the Little Suncook River along the Route 4 highway rest area in Epsom. I often stop to study the dark object on the ice with binoculars in the spring, when the current first opens a winding channel in the frozen Bixby Pond. Otter are powerful animals -- including their jaws. Several years ago, I watched an otter dive from the ice into the water and return with a small painted turtle. It sat on the ice and ate it, shell and all, like a cheeseburger. Otters are mostly fish-eaters, though. I have many times watched them consume huge common white suckers, which they seem to catch easily under the ice. One Fish and Game employee was watching three otters feeding on fish last March, when suddenly an adult bald eagle swooped out of a tree, scaring the otter off and grabbing the fish.

Otters range over much of North America, but historically their range was much greater. Unregulated trapping in the 1800s, as well as pollution, eliminated them from several states. Ongoing restoration efforts have been successful in many areas, including Pennsylvania, which received a few New Hampshire otters in the early 1990s.

How does the future look for New Hampshire's weasels? To maintain our wonderful diversity and abundance of these sleek predators, we must protect and preserve more of the large wooded habitat blocks in New Hampshire, especially those along our rivers and streams. We must link these areas with wildlife corridors along our rivers by protecting the riparian corridor at streams' edges. Recent studies show that protecting a greenway 300 feet wide along our rivers and streams could maintain nearly 80 percent of the states' diversity of species -- including many of our wily weasels. -- by wildlife biologist Eric Orff

New Hampshire has weasels in abundance. In fact, there are six members of the mustelidae, or weasel family. They include (from smallest to largest): ermine (also known as the short-tailed weasel), long-tailed weasel, pine marten, mink, fisher and river otter. All of these, except the marten, are common to abundant throughout most of New Hampshire, but most of us can count on our hands the number of times we have seen any one of them. They may be abundant, but are scarce to our view. Two species, the ermine and long-tailed weasel, disappear nearly completely in winter by turning white as snow! If you can spot any weasel, then you are doing remarkably well!

Weasels, by their very nature, keep themselves scarce. Most of them are either most active after dark, or, as in the case of the otter, are active at first light of morning. They leave an abundance of sign in our forests or along our rivers. When the Fish and Game Department did numerous winter snow tracking census lines in the early 1980s, fishers were the most frequently observed tracks -- even more common than squirrels! Fisher are found practically everywhere there is plentiful cover of softwoods, including our backyards. Their distinctive two-two-two (: : : :) cantered prints in the snow leave ample signs to find. Learning the signs of these small predators will open a whole new world of wildlife for you to discover in your area.

Let's start with the smallest of these weasels, the ERMINE. While the term "ermine" is often used to describe either the short-tailed or the long-tailed in their winter-white fur phase, it is the short-tailed that is actually called an ermine year-round. The ermine lives in the more northern reaches of North America, from northern California to well into the Rockies and east to northern Pennsylvania and all of New Hampshire. Ermine are generally 7 to 8 inches in total length, with fur covering even the bottoms of their feet in the winter. In the winter, they are all white except for a black-tipped tail. Males are considerably larger than females, as is the case with all weasel family members. Very small mammals, like mice, voles and shrews, make up more than 80 percent of their diet. Over the years, I've had numerous reports of weasels invading old colonial houses in the winter, no doubt there to capture the abundance of mice found in these old buildings.

The LONG-TAILED WEASEL, at about 11 or 12 inches long, is actually only slightly longer, or larger, than the ermine. Body measurements are needed to distinguish a male ermine from a female long-tailed. They both turn pure white, except for the black-tipped tail, in winter. Long-tailed weasels are widespread around the world and are one of the most widely distributed mammals known. From the Arctic to the tropics, you can find this little member of the weasel family, although it does not range nearly as widely across northern Canada as its smaller relative, the ermine. Similarities include a diet of mostly small mammals and a home range of just a few acres, making these weasels very similar.

The PINE MARTEN is a larger cousin, generally at least twice as long as a long-tailed weasel at about 20 to 25 inches long. Pine marten are on the state's threatened species list. They have been making a remarkable return on their own the last two decades. Currently, there is a small, but growing, population in northern Coos County. Pine marten have been described as golden brown, with a very distinctive yellow chin patch. Marten are an animal of the far north, preferring the spruce-fir thickets of the Great North Woods. In an ongoing New Hampshire study, nearly 30 pine marten were live-trapped and tagged in the northeastern side of the state near the Maine border. Marten, like the other weasels, prefer small prey mammals like voles, but also will eat fruits and nuts.

If you live near a stream, river or pond, MINK are some of your neighbors. Mink have a dark chestnut-brown colored pelt, only interrupted sometimes by a white chin patch. They are similar in size to the marten. Mink are semi-aquatic in nature, although they can and do range distances from water. Their typical home range is nearly a mile of a river corridor. Their aquatic dwelling shows up in their diet -- which is 31 percent fish, 25 percent frogs and 23 percent crayfish -- although small mammals are often part of their prey base, as well. Mink range widely over North America, except the desert southwest, and are common throughout New Hampshire. Like other weasels, they are rarely seen.

FISHER, often nicknamed "fishercats" in New Hampshire, are one of the most common land predators in the state -- and one of the least well understood. Fisher are a mammal of great mystique here; probably more folklore abounds for this species than any other in the state. The screaming of a fox in the night is often attributed to the fisher. "Fishercats" are blamed for dozens of missing cats each year. Do they eat cats? Sure, as do foxes, coyotes, owls and -- more likely -- a local SUV. It is the nature of a housecat injured on a highway to seek a hiding place to die, but you can bet a "fishercat" will be blamed for its disappearance. In 1979 and 1980, Fish and Game collected more than 1,000 fisher and checked their stomach contents to determine what they had been feeding on. Cat hair was found in exactly...one! Housecats are not part of their regular diet, but, like the other predators, fishers are opportunists. If a housecat is out catching mice and squirrels, especially at night, competing with these predators for the prey they depend on, then the cat may become part of the natural cycle of things. Mother Nature plays no favorites. To keep your cat alive, keep it inside.

Fisher are considerably larger than marten at 35 to 40 inches long. Likewise, their home range is considerably larger. In a New Hampshire study in the 1970s, fisher had a home range of about 600 acres. Fisher live-trapped in New Hampshire have been translocated to three other states to help re-establish populations. In 1975, 25 were transferred to West Virginia in exchange for 25 wild turkeys. In the early 1980s, about 30 were transferred to Connecticut; and in the mid 1990s, 175 were shipped to Pennsylvania to re-establish an extirpated population there.

The biggest of New Hampshire's weasels is the RIVER OTTER, at 25 to 40 inches long. These stately creatures of the water are dark chocolate brown in color. Otters may roam as much as nine square miles. As with mink, fish and crayfish make up the majority of their diet. Like other weasels, otters are rarely seen, despite their abundance. The otter sign that I frequently see is where they slide along the snow in the winter.

I've frequently watched otter family groups in the Little Suncook River along the Route 4 highway rest area in Epsom. I often stop to study the dark object on the ice with binoculars in the spring, when the current first opens a winding channel in the frozen Bixby Pond. Otter are powerful animals -- including their jaws. Several years ago, I watched an otter dive from the ice into the water and return with a small painted turtle. It sat on the ice and ate it, shell and all, like a cheeseburger. Otters are mostly fish-eaters, though. I have many times watched them consume huge common white suckers, which they seem to catch easily under the ice. One Fish and Game employee was watching three otters feeding on fish last March, when suddenly an adult bald eagle swooped out of a tree, scaring the otter off and grabbing the fish.

Otters range over much of North America, but historically their range was much greater. Unregulated trapping in the 1800s, as well as pollution, eliminated them from several states. Ongoing restoration efforts have been successful in many areas, including Pennsylvania, which received a few New Hampshire otters in the early 1990s.

How does the future look for New Hampshire's weasels? To maintain our wonderful diversity and abundance of these sleek predators, we must protect and preserve more of the large wooded habitat blocks in New Hampshire, especially those along our rivers and streams. We must link these areas with wildlife corridors along our rivers by protecting the riparian corridor at streams' edges. Recent studies show that protecting a greenway 300 feet wide along our rivers and streams could maintain nearly 80 percent of the states' diversity of species -- including many of our wily weasels. -- by wildlife biologist Eric Orff

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