article, photos and video by Annette Bays
Approx. Read Time 3 minutes
I had never seen an Ermine before, or any kind of weasel for that matter, so when my dog informed me that there was an unusual visitor outside our house and I had a look, at first I had no idea what the small white creature might be. I grabbed my camera and followed it behind our woodshed where it obligingly commenced posing for me on a downed cedar tree before running off through the forest. On inspection of the pictures and a quick perusal of the internet I concluded that our visitor had indeed been an Ermine.
Apparently Ermines are found right across Canada. They are solitary, and maintain territories in a wide variety of habitats including riparian woodlands, marshes, meadows and open pastures near forest or bush. Unsurprisingly, this describes our property. It was no wonder though, that we had never seen one before as they are quite small (under a foot long) and usually well camouflaged (mainly brown in summer, turning completely white in winter – save for the black tail tip). But, as mentioned in Jen Howard’s article Wildlife and Winter, the lack of snow so far this winter makes them highly visible at the moment.
If you take a look at this short video you will see that the Ermine was quite interested in me (they are quite intelligent animals) and came back numerous times to investigate. But once he decided to run off he was like a flash, and it’s obvious that if there had been snow on the ground he would have been more or less invisible. This combination of speed and camouflage works to protect Ermines from their natural predators, such as snakes, dogs, foxes and coyotes.
Although very sweet to look at, Ermines have sharp teeth and are proficient hunters who can overpower prey many times larger than themselves. And due to high energy demands they need to feed often. They move quickly pursuing their prey which comprises mostly small mammals like mice, shrews, chipmunks, rabbits, rats, but when these are scarce they will also eat eggs, birds, fish and frogs.
Ermines mark and patrol territories, but they only defend from members of the same sex. As Ermine females take numerous mates, kits from one litter may have several different fathers. They make dens under tree roots or in hollow logs or they may re-use burrows of animals they have killed. A litter will average 4 to 9 young, and due to the level of predation they experience, their average life expectancy is only 2 years.
Ermines do not make good pets, but being such proficient hunters of small mammals, they do a wonderful job of keeping the mice populations down. So, if you want to welcome them into your back yard, keep an area a bit wild, with a variety of brush and vegetation. Although they are primarily nocturnal they are often seen during the day as well, so keep your eyes open for the little cuties!