Title: Exotic Intruders

Author: Joan Druett

Publication details: Heinemann, 1983, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Joan Druett

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Exotic Intruders

Stoats and weasels

page 171

Stoats and weasels

The weasel is a dogged and determined hunter, by its persistence taking prey that is often five or ten times its weight. There was a recent account published in a British paper of a weasel that was seen to attack a gull, clinging to its prey even when the gull flew up in the air and then dived into the water. Considering their small size, weasels take a surprisingly large number of rabbits; but they more often pursue and feed on rats and mice. Predation on ground-nesting birds becomes common only when the weasel's normal food supply runs low. In Britain the weasel has been recognised as a pest by bird societies only since most of the British rabbit population died out from myxomatosis.

It is commonly believed that stoats and weasels drink the blood of the victim, leaving the flesh for other animals such as cats and ferrets. This Dracula-like reputation is completely undeserved; when the predator sinks its needle-like teeth into the victim's neck the blood runs down the gripping snout, which makes the assassin look as if it is sucking the blood, but after the death—which is very quickly delivered—the stoat or weasel eats all of the animal except the front part of the skull, the feet and the tail. The intestinal contents probably furnish the mustelid with necessary nutrients such as vitamins and fibre.

Stoats and weasels usually prefer to live alone, but this solitary behaviour is abandoned during the breeding season. Female stoats have the amazing ability to put off pregnancy until the time is favourable; after mating the fertilised eggs float around in the womb until the following spring, when they will embed themselves and start to develop into embryos. The 'kittens' are born in a nest which will be a burrow in a bank or a hollow tree. They are fed on milk for the first few weeks, and then the mother brings them live food to kill and eat, stunning baby rabbits with a single blow of her powerful jaws, and dragging the unconscious bodies into the nest. Young stoats and weasels have to be taught to hunt, so at certain times of the year they can be seen hunting in family parties. Once the kittens can cope on their own the family breaks up as the members go off in different directions to find their own territories.

Stoats can be distinguished from weasels by more than the difference in size, as the stoat's tail is much longer, and has a black tip. Both stoats and weasels are capable of turning white in a very cold winter, although this is not recorded very often even in Southland. When a stoat turns white the black tip to the tail remains, and the animal gets a magnificent new name: ermine. It is this fur that adorns the edges of royal robes.

There is a whole folklore in Europe about stoats: stoats are meant to be able to charm birds into their reach by hypnotic dancing—a sort of rolling around in sinuous gymnastics. The birds flock to watch, and some of them become so mesmerised by the sight that they fall off the perch and into the waiting jaws. There have been so many documented observations of this that it must be founded on fact. It is observable that birds are attracted to any sort of rhythmic behaviour, and stoats, being naturally playful, probably find this out by accident at an age young enough to take advantage of the lesson. Less well documented is the superstition that stoats, like elephants, mourn their dead and take the bodies to a secret resting place.

A stoat or a weasel hunting a rabbit is a riveting sight. The predator never seems to hurry, but travels doggedly along with its nose close to the ground, while the rabbit scurries madly, often in panic-stricken circles. The mustelid has a poor sense of sight, and when the rabbit runs in circles it often 'laps' the predator, running past it close enough for a snatch, but the mustelid ignores it, keeping determinedly on with its nose to the scent trail. The rabbit squeals loudly towards the end of the chase, often crouching still and rigid, with its eyes glazed with terror. However this does nothing to deter its terrible pursuer. The mustelid strikes in the back of the head, its sharp teeth penetrating the skull and killing the rabbit instantly.