Meet the beautiful, white-cloaked ermine (Mustela erminea), also commonly known as the stoat or short-tailed weasel. This curious, swift-moving mammal —closely related to ferrets, weasels, otters, wolverines and badgers— is native to the woodlands, mountainous regions, wetlands and moors of North America, Europe, Asia and the Arctic Circle. Although considered a carnivore —with a diet consisting mainly of mice, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, rabbits and other small rodents— I have observed the ermine eating both nuts and berries in my garden. In fact, the little fella pictured above has become a regular guest at the bird feeder. The short-tailed weasel changes coats from brown to white, as suits the season, and is often called a stoat in summer (brown & white coat with black-tipped tail) and an ermine in winter (white coat with black-tipped tail).
Despite its tiny size (10-14″ long & 6-16 oz) the ermine is a fierce hunter; capturing larger prey, such as squirrel and rabbit, with sharp teeth and claws. Short-tailed weasels are solitary creatures —females raise litters solo— with an average lifespan of 4-6 years in the wild. Although its changing coat makes for a fine seasonal camouflage, the ermine is often a victim of predators; including hawks, owls, fox, coyote, dogs and both wild and domestic cats.
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