Gateway to the Classics: Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by John Burroughs
Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by  John Burroughs

The Weasel

My most interesting note of the season of 1893 relates to a weasel. One day in early November, my boy and I were sitting on a rock at the edge of a tamarack swamp in the woods, hoping to get a glimpse of some grouse which we knew were in the habit of feeding in the swamp. We had not sat there very long before we heard a slight rustling in the leaves below us, which we at once fancied was made by the cautious tread of a grouse. (We had no gun.) Presently, through the thick brushy growth, we caught sight of a small animal running along, that we at first took for a red squirrel. A moment more, and it came into full view but a few yards from us, and we saw that it was a weasel. A second glance showed that it carried something in its mouth which, as it drew near, we saw was a mouse or a mole of some sort. The weasel ran nimbly along, now the length of a decayed log, then over stones and branches, pausing a moment every three or four yards, and passed within twenty feet of us, and disappeared behind some rocks on the bank at the edge of the swamp. "He is carrying food into his den," I said; "let us watch him." In four or five minutes he reappeared, coming back over the course along which he had just passed, running over and under the same stones and down the same decayed log, and was soon out of sight in the swamp. We had not moved, and evidently he had not noticed us. After about six minutes we heard the same rustle as at first, and in a moment saw the weasel coming back with another mouse in his mouth. He kept to his former route as if chained to it, making the same pauses and gestures, and repeating exactly his former movements. He disappeared on our left as before, and, after a few moments' delay, reëmerged and took his course down into the swamp again. We waited about the same length of time as before, when back he came with another mouse. He evidently had a big crop of mice down there amid the bogs and bushes, and he was gathering his harvest in very industriously. We became curious to see exactly where his den was, and so walked around where he had seemed to disappear each time, and waited. He was as punctual as usual, and was back with his game exactly on time. It happened that we had stopped within two paces of his hole, so that, as he approached it, he evidently discovered us. He paused, looked steadily at us, and then, without any sign of fear, entered his den. The entrance was not under the rocks as we had expected to find it, but was in the bank a few feet beyond them. We remained motionless for some time, but he did not reappear. Our presence had made him suspicious, and he was going to wait a while. Then I removed some dry leaves and exposed his doorway, a small, round hole, hardly as large as the chipmunk makes, going straight down into the ground. We had a lively curiosity to get a peep into his larder. If he had been carrying in mice at this rate very long, his cellars must be packed with them. With a sharp stick I began digging into the red clayey soil, but soon encountered so many roots from near trees that I gave it up, deciding to return next day with a mattock. So I repaired the damages I had done as well as I could, replacing the leaves, and we moved off.



The next day, which was mild and still, I came back prepared, as I thought, to unearth the weasel and his treasures. I sat down where we had sat the day before and awaited developments. I was curious to know if the weasel was still carrying in his harvest. I had sat but a few minutes when I heard again the rustle in the dry leaves, and saw the weasel coming home with another mouse. I observed him till he had made three trips; about every six or seven minutes, I calculated, he brought in a mouse. Then I went and stood near his hole. This time he had a fat meadow-mouse. He laid it down near the entrance, went in and turned around, and reached out and drew the mouse in after him. That store of mice I am bound to see, I thought, and then fell to with the heavy mattock. I followed the hole down about two feet, when it turned to the north. I kept the clue by thrusting into the passage slender twigs; these it was easy to follow. Two or three feet more and the hole branched, one part going west, the other northwest. I followed the west one a few feet till it branched. Then I turned to the easterly tunnel, and pursued it till it branched. I followed one of these ways till it divided. I began to be embarrassed and hindered by the accumulations of loose soil. Evidently this weasel had foreseen just such an assault upon his castle as I was making, and had planned it accordingly. He was not to be caught napping. I found several enlargements in the various tunnels, breathing spaces, or spaces to turn around in, or to meet and chat with a companion, but nothing that looked like a terminus, a permanent living-room. I tried removing the soil a couple of paces away with the mattock, but found it slow work. I was getting warm and tired, and my task was apparently only just begun. The farther I dug, the more numerous and intricate became the passages. I concluded to stop, and came again the next day, armed with a shovel in addition to the mattock.

Accordingly, I came back on the morrow, and fell to work vigorously. I soon had quite a large excavation; I found the bank a labyrinth of passages, with here and there a large chamber. One of the latter I struck only six inches under the surface, by making a fresh breach a few feet away.

While I was leaning upon my shovel-handle and recovering my breath, I heard some light-footed creature tripping over the leaves above me just out of view, which I fancied might be a squirrel. Presently I heard the bay of a hound and the yelp of a cur, and then knew that a rabbit had passed near me. The dogs came hurrying after, with a great rumpus, and then presently the hunters followed. The dogs remained barking not many rods south of me on the edge of the swamp, and I knew the rabbit had run to a hole. For half an hour or more I heard the hunters at work there, digging their game out; then they came along and discovered me at my work. They proved to be an old trapper and woodsman and his son. I told them what I was in quest of. "A mountain weasel," said the old man. "Seven or eight years ago I used to set deadfalls for rabbits just over there, and the game was always partly eaten up. It must have been this weasel that visited my traps." So my game was evidently an old resident of the place. This swamp, maybe, had been his hunting-ground for many years, and he had added another hall to his dwelling each year. After further digging, I struck at least one of his banqueting halls, a cavity about the size of one's hat, arched over by a network of fine tree-roots. The occupant evidently lodged or rested here also. There was a warm, dry nest, made of leaves and the fur of mice and moles. I took out two or three handfuls. In finding this chamber I had followed one of the tunnels around till it brought me within a foot of the original entrance. A few inches to one side of this cavity there was what I took to be a back alley where the weasel threw his waste; there were large masses of wet, decaying fur here, and fur pellets such as are regurgitated by hawks and owls. In the nest there was the tail of a flying squirrel, showing that the weasel sometimes had this game for supper or dinner.

I continued my digging with renewed energy; I should yet find the grand depot where all these passages centered; but the farther I excavated, the more complex and baffling the problem became; the ground was honeycombed with passages. What enemy has this weasel, I said to myself, that he should provide so many ways of escape, that he should have a back door at every turn? To corner him would be impossible; to be lost in his fortress was like being lost in Mammoth Cave. How he could bewilder his pursuer by appearing now at this door, now at that; now mocking him from the attic, now defying him from the cellar! So far, I had discovered but one entrance; but some of the chambers were so near the surface that it looked as if the planner had calculated upon an emergency when he might want to reach daylight quickly in a new place.

Finally I paused, rested upon my shovel a while, eased my aching back upon the ground, and then gave it up, feeling as I never had before the force of the old saying, that you cannot catch a weasel asleep. I had made an ugly hole in the bank, had handled over two or three times a ton or more of earth, and was apparently no nearer the weasel and his store of mice than when I began.

Then I regretted that I had broken into his castle at all; that I had not contented myself with coming day after day and counting his mice as he carried them in, and continued my observation upon him each succeeding year. Now the rent in his fortress could not be repaired and he would doubtless move away, as he most certainly did, for his doors, which I had closed with soil, remained unopened after winter had set in.

But little seems known about the intimate private lives of any of our lesser wild creatures. It was news to me that any of the weasels lived in dens in this way, and that they stored up provision against a day of need. This species was probably the little ermine, eight or nine inches long, with tail about five inches. It was still in its summer dress of dark chestnut-brown above and whitish below.

It was a mystery where the creature had put the earth which it must have removed in digging its den; not a grain was to be seen anywhere, and yet a bushel or more must have been taken out. Externally, there was not the slightest sign of that curious habitation there under the ground. The entrance was hidden beneath dry leaves, and was surrounded by little passages and flourishes between the leaves and the ground. If any of my readers find a weasel's den, I hope they will be wiser than I was, and observe his goings and comings without disturbing his habitation.

A few years later I had another adventure with a weasel that had its den in a bank on the margin of a muck swamp in the same neighborhood. We had cleared and drained and redeemed the swamp and made it into a garden, and I had built me a lodge there. The weasel's hunting grounds, where doubtless he had been wont to gather his supply of mice, had been destroyed, and he had "got even" with me by preying upon my young chickens. Night after night the number of chickens grew less, till one day we chanced to see the creature boldly chasing one of the larger fowls along the road near the henhouse. His career was cut short then and there by one of the men. We were then ignorant of the den in the bank a few yards away. The next season my chickens were preyed upon again; they were killed upon the roost, and their half-eaten bodies were found under the floor. One night I was awakened about midnight by that loud, desperate cry which a barn fowl gives when suddenly seized upon its roost. Was I dreaming, or was that a cry of murder from my chickens? I seized my lantern, and with my dog rushed out to where a pair of nearly grown roosters passed the nights upon a low stump. They were both gone, and the action of the dog betrayed the fresh scent of some animal. But we could get no clue to the chickens or their enemy. I felt sure that only one of the fowls had been seized, and that the other had dashed away wildly in the darkness, which proved to be the case. The dead chicken was there under the edge of the stump, where I found it in the morning, and its companion came forth unhurt during the day. Thenceforth the chickens, big and little, were all shut up in the henhouse at night. On the third day the appetite of the weasel was keen again, and it boldly gave chase to a chicken before our eyes. I was standing in my porch with my dog, talking with my neighbor and his wife, who, with their dog, were standing in the road a few yards in front of me. A chicken suddenly screamed in the bushes up behind the rocks just beyond my friends. Then it came rushing down over the rocks past them, flying and screaming, closely pursued by a long, slim red animal, that seemed to slide over the rocks like a serpent. Its legs were so short that one saw only the swift, gliding motion of its body. Across the road into the garden, within a yard of my friends, went the pursued and the pursuer, and into the garden rushed I and my dog. The weasel seized the chicken by the wing, and was being dragged along by the latter in its effort to escape, when I arrived upon the scene. With a savage glee I had not felt for many a day, I planted my foot upon the weasel. The soft muck underneath yielded, and I held him without hurting him. He let go his hold upon the chicken and seized the sole of my shoe in his teeth. Then I reached down and gripped him with my thumb and forefinger just back of the ears, and lifted him up, and looked his impotent rage in the face. What gleaming eyes, what an array of threatening teeth, what reaching of vicious claws, what a wriggling and convulsed body! But I held him firmly. He could only scratch my hand and dart fire from his electric bead-like eyes. In the mean time my dog was bounding up, begging to be allowed to have his way with the weasel. But I knew what he did not: I knew that in anything like a fair encounter the weasel would get the first hold, would draw the first blood, and hence probably effect his escape. So I carried the animal, writhing and scratching, to a place in the road removed from any near cover, and threw him violently upon the ground, hoping thereby so to stun and bewilder him that the terrier could rush in and crush him before he recovered his wits. But I had miscalculated; the blow did indeed stun and confuse him, but he was still too quick for the dog, and had him by the lip like an electric trap. Nip lifted up his head and swung the weasel violently about in the air, trying to shake him off, uttering a cry of rage and pain, but did not succeed in loosening the animal's hold for some moments. When he had done so, and attempted to seize him a second time, the weasel was first again, but quickly released hold and darted about this way and that, seeking cover. Three or four times the dog was upon him, but found him each time too hot to be held. Seeing that the creature was likely to escape, I set my foot upon him again, and made a finish of him.

The weasel is the boldest and most bloodthirsty of our small mammals; indeed, none of our larger beasts are more so. There is something devilish and uncanny about it. It persists like fate; it eludes, but cannot be eluded. The terror it inspires in the smaller creatures—rats, rabbits, chipmunks—is pitiful to behold. A rat pursued by a weasel has been known to rush into a room, uttering dismal cries, and seeking the protection of a man in bed. A chipmunk will climb to the top of a tall tree to elude it, and then, when followed, let go its hold and drop with a cry of despair toward the ground. A friend of mine, walking along the road early one morning, saw a rat rush over the fence and cross a few yards ahead of him. Pressing it close came a weasel, which seized the rat before it could gain the opposite wall. My friend rushed to the aid of the rat with his cane. But the weasel dodged his blows, and in a moment or two turned fiercely upon him. My friend aimed more blows at it without effect, when the weasel began leaping up before him, within a few feet of his face, its eyes gleaming, its teeth threatening, and dodging every blow aimed at it. The effect, my friend says, was singularly uncanny and startling. It was like some infuriated imp of Satan dancing before him, and watching for a chance to seize him by the throat or to dash into his eyes. He slowly backed off, beating the air with his cane. Then the weasel returned to the disabled rat and attempted to drag it into the wall. My friend now began to hurl stones at it, but it easily dodged them. Now he was joined by another passer-by, and the two opened upon the weasel with stones, till finally, in dodging one, it was caught by the other, and so much hurt that it gave up the rat and sought shelter in the wall, where it was left waiting to secure its game when its enemies should have gone on.

I must give one more instance of the boldness and ferocity of the weasel. A woman in northern Vermont discovered that something was killing her hens, often on the nest. She watched for the culprit, and at last caught a weasel in the act. It had seized the hen, and refused to let go when she tried to scare it away. Then the woman laid hold of it and tried choking it, when the weasel released its hold upon the hen and fastened its teeth into her hand between the thumb and forefinger. She could not choke it off, and ran to a neighbor for help, but no one could remove it without tearing the flesh from the woman's hand. Then some one suggested a pail of water; into this the hand and weasel were plunged, but the creature would not let go even then, and did not until it was drowned.

The weasel is a subtle and destructive enemy of the birds. It climbs trees and explores them with great ease and nimbleness. I have seen it do so on several occasions. One day my attention was arrested by the angry notes of a pair of brown thrashers that were flitting from bush to bush along an old stone wall in a remote field. Presently I saw what it was that excited them,—three large red weasels, or ermines, coming along the stone wall, and leisurely and half playfully exploring every tree that stood near it. They had probably robbed the thrashers. They would go up the trees with great ease, and glide serpent-like out upon the main branches. When they descended the tree, they were unable to come straight down, like a squirrel, but went around it spirally. How boldly they thrust their heads out of the wall, and eyed me and sniffed me as I drew near,—their round, thin ears, their prominent, glistening, bead-like eyes, and the curving, snake-like motions of the head and neck being very noticeable. They looked like blood-suckers and egg-suckers. They suggested something extremely remorseless and cruel. One could understand the alarm of the rats when they discover one of these fearless, subtle, and circumventing creatures threading their holes. To flee must be like trying to escape death itself. I was one day standing in the woods upon a flat stone, in what at certain seasons was the bed of a stream, when one of these weasels came undulating along and ran under the stone upon which I was standing. As I remained motionless, he thrust out his wedge-shaped head, and turned it back above the stone as if half in mind to seize my foot; then he drew back, and presently went his way. These weasels often hunt in packs like the British stoat. When I was a boy, my father one day armed me with an old musket and sent me to shoot chipmunks around the corn. While watching the squirrels, a troop of weasels tried to cross a bar-way where I sat, and were so bent on doing it that I fired at them, boy-like, simply to thwart their purpose. One of the weasels was disabled by my shot, but the troop was not discouraged, and, after making several feints to cross, one of them seized the wounded one and bore it over, and the pack disappeared in the wall on the other side.

Let me conclude this chapter with two or three more notes about this alert enemy of the birds and lesser animals, the weasel.

A farmer one day heard a queer growling sound in the grass: on approaching the spot he saw two weasels contending over a mouse; both held the mouse, pulling in opposite directions, and they were so absorbed in the struggle that the farmer cautiously put his hands down and grabbed them both by the back of the neck. He put them in a cage, and offered them bread and other food. This they refused to eat, but in a few days one of them had eaten the other up, picking his bones clean, and leaving nothing but the skeleton.

The same farmer was one day in his cellar when two rats came out of a hole near him in great haste, and ran up the cellar wall and along its top till they came to a floor timber that stopped their progress, when they turned at bay, and looked excitedly back along the course they had come. In a moment a weasel, evidently in hot pursuit of them, came out of the hole, but, seeing the farmer, checked his course and darted back. The rats had doubtless turned to give him fight, and would probably have been a match for him.

The weasel seems to track its game by scent. A hunter of my acquaintance was one day sitting in the woods, when he saw a red squirrel run with great speed up a tree near him, and out upon a long branch, from which he leaped to some rocks, disappearing beneath them. In a moment a weasel came in full course upon his trail, ran up the tree, then out along the branch, leaping from there to the rocks just as the squirrel had done and pursuing him into their recesses.

Doubtless the squirrel fell a prey to him. The squirrel's best game would have been to keep to the higher treetops, where he could easily have distanced the weasel. But beneath the rocks he stood a very poor chance. I have often wondered what keeps such an animal as the weasel in check, for they are quite rare. They never need go hungry, for rats and squirrels and mice and birds are everywhere. They probably do not fall a prey to any other animal, and they are very rarely captured or killed by man. But the circumstances or agencies that check the increase of any species of animal are, as Darwin says, very obscure and but little known.

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