SCORES & OUTDOORS: Weasels (ermines) are finding their way into people’s homes

The different coats of the winter and summer ermine.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

In recent weeks, there have been numerous reports of incidences where weasels have found their way into homes. There were reports in Harpswell, Cumberland and Bangor.

The woman in Bangor said she noticed what she thought was a rat or an escaped ferret in her ceiling. It had been running around in the ceiling, so she removed one of the ceiling panels. When it poked its head out, she called the landlord and both determined it was someone’s escaped pet ferret. However, it was later determined to be a weasel, or ermine as they are also known.

Weasels are naturally very curious and do wander from time to time into people’s houses, perhaps in search of mice. Their small size allows them to get into nooks and crannies.

There was one instance when the homeowner captured the ermine in a humane trap, and before she even had it for a minute, the ermine escaped.

Ermines are common throughout Maine and hunt both night and day, but people don’t often see this small animal because it’s well camouflaged, moves fast and tends to keep out of sight.

Weasels are usually brown, gray or black with white or yellowish markings. All weasels become all white in the winter. The winter fur of the least weasel glows a bright lavender color when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Ermines are especially difficult to spot in the winter season, when their coat turns from brown to white, an adaptation that allows it to hide in the snow. The only thing that remains pigmented on an ermine is the tip of its tail, which is jet black.

As nocturnal animals, weasels sleep during the day and are active at night. Most of a weasel’s time awake consists of hunting, storing excess food and eating. Their bodies don’t store fat, so they need a constant supply of food to provide enough energy. In fact, the least weasel eats 40 – 60 percent of its body weight every day, according to the Nature Conservancy.

The most common weasel is the short-tailed weasel. It can be found in North America, Europe and Asia, in regions as far north as the Arctic. Their homes include marshes, scrubs, hedgerows, alpine meadows, riparian woodlands and riverbank habitats, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

The genus includes least weasels, polecats, stoats, ferrets and minks. These animals are small, active predators with long and slender bodies and short legs.

According to Dr. Alessio Mortelliti, assistant professor in the University of Maine Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Conservation Biology, “It’s pretty much anywhere in the world, plus it’s an invasive species in some places.”

Ermines are especially ferocious and bold. It is not uncommon for this predator to attack and kill prey that exceeds them in size and weight. For example, ermines, that weigh between 1.6 to 3.7 ounces, have been known to attack gray squirrels, which are much heavier, typically weighing between 12 and 24 ounces. Ermines are very aggressive, “they can go for prey that is bigger than them,” said Mortelliti. Ermines will attack young rabbits and hares, but they prefer smaller prey such as mice and voles. In fact, one of the ermine’s key adaptations is their ability to manipulate its flexible body into small tunnels that are created by smaller animals.

They are also bullies. Although they can dig their own burrows quite quickly, they sometimes take over another animal’s burrows and make them their own.

In Greek culture, a weasel near one’s house is a sign of bad luck, even evil, especially if there is a girl about to be married, since the animal was thought to be an unhappy bride who was transformed into a weasel, and consequently delights in destroying wedding dresses. However, in neighboring Macedonia, weasels are generally seen as an omen of good fortune.

In North America, Native Americans, in the region of North Carolina, deemed the weasel to be a bad sign: crossing its path meant a “speedy death.” According to Daniel Dafoe, meeting a weasel is a bad omen.

In the English language, being called a weasel is considered an insult, being regarded as sneaky, conniving or untrustworthy.

How do these animals find their way into homes? Usually through some openings in the foundation, broken windows or sometimes through openings in the roof like attic vents or chimneys.

How do you rid yourself of one? Use fresh meat, if possible. Position your bait strategically, so that the weasel must bring its entire body into the trap and step on the trigger plate to get to it. Make sure the bait is far enough from the trap walls that an animal cannot reach inside and steal it without entering. Weasels are known to bite, so wear heavy gloves whenever handling the trapped animal and refrain from sticking your fingers inside the trap.

Again, weasels are cute, but do not approach one unless it is safely in a Havahart trap, be careful handling it, and take it deep into the woods, where it belongs.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who is the only NFL player to be named MVP of the Super Bowl from the losing team.

Answer can be found here.


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