Little is known about Alabama’s long-tailed weasel, but many benefit from its superb rat-catching abilities.
It’s Alabama’s smallest carnivore and perhaps the state’s most unknown. Featuring a flat head, long and slender body and short legs, the long-tailed weasel is approximately the size of a gray squirrel (weighing less than 16 oz) and resembles its cousin the mink.
Reddish-brown on its upper body, the long-tailed weasel has a white throat, chin and belly and a black-tipped tail. It also has well-developed anal scent glands, which produce a strong and musky odor. The long-tailed weasel drags and rubs its body over surfaces to mark its territory with its musky scent and to discourage predators when threatened.
The long-tailed weasel boasts an extensive range from just north of the U.S.-Canadian border to central and northern South America. It can be found throughout Alabama, except for the coastal regions.
In Alabama it can be found in a variety of habitats, including forest edges, fencerows, stream banks, brush lands, open areas and farmlands. The long-tailed weasel was previously believed to be nocturnal, but research has shown it to be diurnal (active during daylight) as well. It feeds mostly on small rodents, such as rats, mice and shrews, but will also eat chipmunks, squirrels, birds, eggs, reptiles and amphibians.
This weasel is a notoriously good climber and can often climb 20 feet or more to prey on a squirrel. It’s also an excellent swimmer. It can be bold with its choice of prey, attacking creatures much larger than itself, such as full-grown rabbits and chickens. Although it’s a carnivore, it won’t pass up an opportunity to scavenge.
When prey is plentiful, the long-tailed weasel will store up surplus food, and unlike most other predators, it will often kill more than it can eat. In fact, weasels are notorious for killing entire coops of chickens. For this reason it has earned the reputation for being a bloodthirsty killer. But weasels do have enemies. Snakes, hawks, owls, foxes and cats have been known to prey on them.
Long-tailed weasels often breed in July and August, and as with most mustelids (otters, badgers, weasels and martins), the species is capable of delayed implantation. This adaptive phenomenon allows the weasel to birth its young during the best habitat conditions, ensuring the best conditions for survival of the young after parental care.
Litters of three to nine blind and naked young are usually born in late April. By the time they are three-months-old, they are nearly mature and begin to disperse. Females may begin reproducing after their first year, but males usually don’t reproduce until their second year.
Long-tailed weasels often take over the burrows of other animals, such as chipmunks, but they will also use rock crevices, stumps and hollow logs for dens. They construct their nests of tightly packed grasses and will often line their nests with fur from prey animals.
Although it doesn’t have much value as a furbearer, the long-tailed weasel is biologically valuable. As one of nature’s best “mousers,” it can catch and kill a remarkable number of mice and rats, which helps keep their populations in check.
Although the long-tailed weasel can be beneficial due to its mouse-catching abilities, few landowners manage their property for the species. But they do benefit from various wildlife conservation practices. Soil and water conservation practices also benefit this type of weasel.
Much has yet to be learned about Alabama’s long-tailed weasel. Although it is believed the long-tailed weasel once occurred statewide, the population may be declining due to habitat loss.