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Weasels

( Originally Published 1936 )

These animals, the true Weasels or the allied forms, are found in all parts of the world except Australia and neighbouring islands, and all the members of the family are noted for their bloodthirsty character and their habit of killing and destroying much more than they can possibly eat. On gaining entrance to a poultry-house at night, a Weasel will kill all the fowls within reach, but suck the blood of only one or two. For this reason it is a dreaded and detested animal, and every possible means are used for its destruction. All are great fighters and very aggressive. They have extremely long and sinuous bodies, short legs, small and narrow heads, and are remarkably snake-like in build. The muscles of the neck and head are very powerful, and a small Weasel, but eight or nine inches in length, is able to give battle to, and to kill, the largest rat. These animals have a curious dog-like habit of tracking their game by its odour, and have been seen running up and down the bank of a stream seeking a scent that has been lost in the water. They will often travel long distances in pursuit of prey.

Weasels
The Mink (Mustela vision) is a well-known form found in the northern and eastern parts of North America, always near streams, since it is very fond of fish and is a good swimmer. A larger animal than the common Weasel, it is usually dark brown in colour—one variety being almost black—and the skin is greatly in demand for use as articles of clothing. In common with the rest of its tribe, the Mink is an enemy to other small animals and to birds, robbing nests and killing wholesale anything it can catch, and often destroying whole flocks of ducks and chick-ens in a single night, apparently simply for the love of killing. Minks are often caught in traps set in run-ways which they themselves make to and from the water.

Beech Marten (Mustela foina)

The Beech Marten, or Stone Marten, as it is some-times called, ranges over a large part of Europe and Western Asia. It is light greyish or brownish above, paler underneath, with the throat and part of the breast pure white. See Plate 8, Fig. 35. It is not so exclusively tree-living as the succeeding species, but often takes up its abode near farm-houses, and is very destructive to poultry, although it also eats snakes, frogs, rats, and the like, prowling about at night in search of prey, and showing great cunning in avoiding traps set for it.

Pine Marten (Mustela martes)

This species differs in colour from the preceding in that the throat and breast are yellow instead of white. See Plate 8, Fig. 36. It is found in Northern and Central Europe, inhabiting chiefly pine forests, but is occasionally seen about farm-houses. In the evening, and sometimes during the day, this animal may be seen among the stumps and low bushes of the woods, but it is shy and shuns observation, flattening itself down and concealing itself as much as possible.

The American Pine Marten (Mustela americana) is similar in habits to the European form.

Sable (Mustela zibellina)

In colour darker and richer, sometimes of a bluish-brown, this animal is by some naturalists regarded as simply a variety of the pine marten. See Plate 8, Fig. 39. It inhabits the eastern part of Siberia and Kamtchatka, dwelling in thick forests, especially near rivers, and making its nest in hollow trees or in burrows in the ground. The long and fine fur is the most valuable of any in the markets of the world, and has constant sale in all countries, particularly in Russia, where members of the Royal house-hold spend immense sums annually for garments made from it. There is never enough to equal the demand. The pine marten of America is commonly called sable.

Polecat (Putorius foetidus)

The polecat is a slightly smaller animal than the martens, and is sometimes placed in a different genus. In colour it is very dark brown, with the inner fur pale yellow, and the head marked with black and white. See Plate 8, Fig. 40. Common in nearly all parts of Europe and in some sections of Asia, it has been nearly exterminated in the British Islands. Like most of its tribe, it is a great enemy to poultry and small game, and is fond of eggs and honey. When injured or irritated, it emits an extremely unpleasant odour.

Ermine (Putorius erminea)

The Ermine, or Stoat, is found throughout North America as far south as Mexico, in Europe, and Central and Northern Asia, the species being much the same in all countries. It measures nine or ten inches in length, exclusive of the tail, which is short, heavily furred, and bears a black tip. See Plate 8, Fig. 38. In summer, and more or less in winter in temperate climates, the fur is reddish-brown above and yellowish-white below, but in far northern countries the animal becomes quite white in winter, and the fur very long, the tip of the tail, however, always remaining black.

Ferret (Putorius furo )

The true Ferret is closely allied to the polecat and is often crossed with it, but its range is different, covering the northern part of Africa. The colouring is generally of the albino type, a cream white, or pale yellow, with pink eyes. See Plate 8, Fig. 43. This animal has been partially domesticated and is used to catch rats and to drive rabbits from their burrows, but it shows no attachment to people, is unintelligent except in the pursuit of its prey, and is therefore uninteresting as a pet. Like most of the other members of the weasel family it is voracious and bloodthirsty in character.

The Black-footed Ferret (Putorius nigripes) is an allied species found in the western part of the United States.

Weasel (Putorius vulgaris)

The Weasel is one of the smallest animals in this family, being only about seven or eight inches in length, without the tail, which is between two and three inches longer. The colour of the fur is reddish-brown above and white beneath, and the tail is not tipped with black, as in the ermine, or stoat, nor does the animal turn white in winter. See Plate 8, Fig. 37. It destroys great numbers of rats and mice, and the benefit thus conferred on the farmer is considered to outweigh its attacks on poultry. The slender, snake-like body enables it to push through very small crevices, and it usually kills by driving its sharp teeth through the skull into the brain. The common American Weasel is a larger animal than the European, reddish-brown above and silvery-white below, but in habits is like the Old World species.

Glutton or Wolverene (Gulo luscus)

Common in the north of Europe, Asia, and in North America, where it is known as the Wolverene, this creature is one of the strangest forms of the weasel family. The body is bulky, from two to three feet in length, the neck short and covered with long hair, the tail thick and bushy, the feet large and horny and equipped with strong, curved claws. See Plate 7, Fig. 32. It lives chiefly in forest country, where it attacks and kills even such large animals as reindeer and cattle, leaping on them from trees and attacking the throat with the teeth. The Wolverene bears probably the worst reputation of all animals, trappers and Indians of the Northwest regarding it almost with superstition. It shows extraordinary cunning in following up a line of traps, killing and devouring the small game in them, and often undoing and destroying a whole winter's work. Not content with devouring the animals caught, it pulls up and damages the traps to the greatest possible extent, often burying them in the snow some distance away from where they have been set. For its size, it is one of the most ferocious and terrible of all animals. In running it has the curious galloping gait common to the bears, and in reality it may be said to resemble a cross between a small bear and a large weasel. The fur, a most beautiful brown in colour, long and silky, with a curious whitish tinge around the sides and small white spots on the throat, is very valuable. The Wolverene never becomes accustomed to captivity, always exhibiting the fiercest possible demeanour when caged.

White-Backed Skunk (Conepatus mapurito)

The common Skunk of America (Mephitis Mephitica) is celebrated not so much for its beauty, which is considerable, as for the extraordinarily disagreeable liquid which it projects at will when alarmed or pursued. The strength of its odour is remarkable, being distinctly noticeable for a great distance from the animal, and remaining in the air for days. Naturally, it is a powerful protection from dogs and other animals. Strangely enough, one of the principal enemies of the Skunk is the great horned-owl, and specimens of this bird are almost never found without some trace of the odour of the Skunk about them. The fur is very beautiful, brilliant and shining, and is much used, under the name " Alaska sable."

In captivity this animal exhibits considerable intelligence and becomes quite affectionate. Two large specimens that were kept for some years in the Washington Zoological Park became perfectly tame, al-lowing their keeper to go in their cage and handle them freely, and never on any occasion throwing out the offensive liquid. The female produces several young at a time, and the mother and her babies on their pilgrimages for food are a very pretty and interesting sight. The tail is large and bushy, and is carried in a beautiful 'curve over the back, There are many varieties of Skunk in America, some of them brown and white. The White-Backed Skunk, figured here, is found all over South and Central America, and as far north as Texas. It is put in a separate genus from the common Skunk of the northern parts of the United States, differing somewhat in structure and in marking. See Plate 8, Fig. 42.

Badger (Meles taxus)

The Badgers and skunks differ from the true weasels in having long feet with straight toes and slightly-curved, blunt, and exposed claws. The species figured is a native of Europe and Northern Asia, and has a much longer head than the badger of this country. It measures nearly three feet in length, including the tail, the upper surface is reddish or yellowish-grey, the lower parts black, the head black and white. See Plate 7, Fig. 34. The Badger is still common in the British Islands, and is the most bear-like animal found there. It makes burrows in the ground, in which it sleeps during the day, is omnivorous, feeding on any small animals obtainable, as well as on roots and fruits, and is torpid during the winter season. Badger-baiting was formerly a popular amusement in England.

The American Badger (Taxidea americana) is a larger and more powerful animal than the European, and varies from it in colour, but is similar in habits. Owing to the very long hair which grows out from either side of the body, it has a curiously broad and flat appearance, often measuring a foot across the back, while only a few inches in height. The colour of the fur is a beautiful silver-grey with a kind of salmon-tinge next the skin, the feet and parts of the face being black. This hair is used commercially in many ways, principally in the making of brushes for the use or artists and painters in general. The Badger is easily tamed and has many playful and interesting ways, but is a terrible fighter when attacked, and will defend itself to good advantage against large and powerful dogs. Although comparatively small in size, it has enormous muscular power and apparently sinks into the ground with the greatest ease, digging rapidly by the use of its strong feet and claws.

Otter (Lutra vulgaris)

The Otters differ from the weasels chiefly in their semi-aquatic habits. The feet are short and rounded (except the hind-feet of the Sea-Otter), the toes webbed, with short blunt claws, the head broad and flattened, the body and tail long. The common Otter lives on the shores of rivers and lakes throughout Europe and a great part of Asia, and in Northern Europe is sometimes found on the sea-shore. It is about two feet in length, without the tail, is reddish-brown in colour, and the East Indian species (Lutra nair), especially, is more or less varied with white. See Plate 8, Fig. 41.

The American Otter (Lutra canadensis) closely resembles the European in form and habits. The fur of this animal is a beautiful deep rich brown, extremely glossy in texture, and is much in demand. The Otter is among the most interesting of all the smaller animals. When in the water it is in a constant state of activity, gambolling and playing about in a manner that is delightful to see, and its motions are the perfection of grace as it twists and turns about in search of food. Although so gentle in appearance, it is a determined fighter, and its extraordinary suppleness enables it to twist about in any direction in order to bite. The Otter has a very wide range throughout North America, being found from the northern to the southern limits.

In the Southern States is a large variety having, naturally, shorter fur than the northern forms. A specimen that I saw during a stay in Florida, some years ago, exhibited some curious characters. It was perfectly tame, could be handled freely, and was al-lowed to run at large in the little town in which its owner lived. A close friend and almost constant companion was a large hound which it persisted in following about on all possible occasions, and to see this dog trotting slowly along the streets and the Otter galloping after him as fast as its short legs could carry him, was a strange and most amusing sight. The moment the hound lay down, the Otter would climb upon his back, curl itself into a tight ball, and go to sleep. It would often go to the river nearby to catch fish, invariably returning to its home afterward; and when given a dead fish to eat would throw itself on its back, hold the fish in its paws, and suck and bite on it and act much as a baby would with a bottle. Altogether, this was a most charming little creature, fat and round, and very active and intelligent in all its movements.

Although such a graceful swimmer, the Otter is rather awkward on land, loping along in an ungainly manner and at times standing erect to survey the landscape. When walking, the back is very much arched in a curious manner—a marked character, but one that is never shown in the stuffed specimens seen in museums.

For some reason not satisfactorily explained, Otters have a habit of making what is known as " otter slides." At certain places along a stream they will select a spot down which they slide into the water, and by constant use this becomes polished like a toboggan-slide, and the animals may be seen running to the top and sliding down into the water.

Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris)

Found on the Asiatic as well as the American coasts and islands of the North Pacific, the Sea Otter is considerably larger than the common otter, measuring four or five feet in length, including the tail. It has short, rounded toes on the front feet, and long toes on the hind feet; very strong and blunt teeth, fitting it to feed on shellfish as well as on fish. The Sea Otter is of a dark brownish colour, with grizzled hair, paler beneath, the head and sometimes parts of the body more or less white. See Plate 9, Fig. 44. It is almost aquatic in habits, the young being born at some distance from shore on floating beds of sea-weed. At certain times, the Indians organise large expeditions and go out in canoes to the breeding re-treats, and there destroy as many as possible.. Indeed the animal has been so persecuted on account of its extremely fine and valuable fur, that it is now practically extinct. Comparatively little is known of its habits, since the young are reared at sea.



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