When I left the deer shack’s door open on a pleasant November morning in northern Wisconsin, a bold weasel slipped in behind me to search for food. I interrupted his reconnaissance seconds later a few feet from the door. Our beady eyes locked into a brief stare-down. The white wisp with a black-tipped tail then wheeled, whipped through the doorway, darted into the porch, and vanished beneath the woodpile.
I blinked to assure myself my eyes were working and that I hadn’t imagined anything. I shared the encounter awhile later with camp boss Tom Heberlein of Madison as we congratulated Chris White, and admired a young buck our Ohio friend killed an hour earlier. After Rich Stedman of Ithaca, N.Y., the camp’s fourth member, appeared, I forgot about the weasel-intruder as we helped White dress and drag the buck to camp. Besides, we weren’t struck dumb by the weasel or its attempted burglary. Someone usually spots a weasel every year while deer hunting. In fact, Stedman and I had seen weasels hunting near our stands the previous weekend. They were impossible to miss because their brown summer coat had already switched to virgin white, contrasting like blaze orange with the snow-free forest. As weasels dart about on their short legs and broad paws, their stretch-limo bodies resemble handkerchiefs snapping in the wind.
A short-tailed weasel in its winter coat scavenges meat and fat from a deer carcass in November 2012 on the tailgate of author Pat Durkin’s pickup truck.
Given the weasel’s size and weight, it’s conceivable a breeze would blow them away. Weasels living in that region are the “short-tailed” species, which measure 7 to 14 inches and weigh 2 to 5 ounces. Wisconsin is home to two other species, the slightly larger “long-tailed” weasel in the southern part of the state, and the rare and smaller “least” weasel of marshes and damp meadows. For comparisons, a male short-tailed weasel is about the same size as a female long-tailed weasel. One glimpse of a weasel hunting and you realize their hummingbird’s metabolism requires a relentless search for prey and water. And although they’re cute to see and fun to watch, they’re likely one of the world’s most aggressive predator by weight.
Weasels belong to the “mustelid” family of mammals, which includes the mink, marten, fisher and skunk; and they’re distant cousins to the otter, badger and wolverine. In other words, weasels are tough, kick-butt little dudes. Their species name is “Mustela,” which means “one that carries off mice.” They also kill and eat shrews, insects, chipmunks, frogs, snakes, birds and ground squirrels. In fact, adult weasels kill adult cottontail rabbits, so don’t think they’ll avoid prey more than five times their size. They have sharp canine teeth designed to puncture skulls and pierce neck muscles to the spine. Weasels also scavenge fresh kills of other predators, and will cache food to eat later. White and I saw these traits firsthand while butchering our two deer outside Heberlein’s shack later in the day.
Weasels are aggressive scavengers that can and will kill a variety of small animals in order to survive.
As we began skinning the deer, a weasel kept hopping onto the rear axle of my truck and jumping into the pickup’s bed, which had carried our deer to the registration station earlier that day. When the weasel found little except hair and blood, it dashed and darted about the buck pole beneath our hanging deer. Each time we carried away meat carved from the deer, the weasel darted beneath the carcasses to scavenge fallen scraps. It then disappeared for a couple of hours after we cut down the butchered carcasses and put the remaining bones on my truck’s tailgate. Its long absence puzzled us, but about 4 p.m., White heard a scratchy commotion nearby. The weasel was back on the tailgate, biting and pulling vigorously at my doe’s brisket.
It ignored me when I walked around the truck to the back-seat door and retrieved my camera. It then hid beneath the truck as I returned to the work table, where we cleaned and bagged the deer’s roasts, loins and sausage meat. White predicted the weasel would pop back atop the tailgate any second and let me take its picture. He was right, but the day’s fading light and the weasel’s frenzied movements made it difficult to take clear photos, so I kept inching closer.The weasel was daring, but never foolish. It seldom ventured more than inches deep into the truck bed, but constantly dipped from view into the gap between the bed and tailgate. It seemed especially interested in the deer’s briskets, which we had cleaved when field-dressing our kills. We assumed the weasel craved fat in the exposed bone marrow, because that’s where it worked most intently. Still, it once pulled a piece of long, blood-stained grass from a brisket and devoured it lengthwise, looking like a kid eating licorice.
With winter comes limited food sources, thus all animals adapt and do what they have to in order to eat; even if that means visiting deer camp for some leftovers!
As darkness neared, the weasel flitted down from the tailgate and sprinted to a spruce tree three feet from where we worked. We humored ourselves till dark by tossing fat and sinew beneath the spruce as we cleaned our venison, and wondered how much the weasel ate and how much it cached. We’ll never know for sure, but it seemingly ate its weight in scraps and bore away everything else. For weasels – as with all wild creatures – food sources lose their certainty once winter settles in.