Attempted murder with eyewitness

Opossum

The oppossum was about again this evening. He (or she – you can tell sex by size, but there’s overlap, and the measurements I’ve read are in weight, not length, which is difficult to gauge without picking the animal up) actually showed up late afternoon, when there was still a couple of hours of daylight left. I spotted him sitting on a low branch in the crabapple tree behind the house, near the feeders, just chillin’. Perhaps waiting for dusk? We put out some wet cat food near the base of the tree where he would eventually need to come down to. He let me get exceptionally close, perhaps five or six feet, and just kept an eye on me. I really hope he’s finding enough to eat. I know from my experience working with wild birds that it’s often hard to judge a malnourished animal simply based on appearance, sometimes all the layers of fur or feathers can disguise their actual body shape (ever washed a cat? They go from looking like a robust, sleek predator to a rather good imitation of the proverbial drowned rat).

Dark-eyed Junco

When I arrived at my parents’ this morning, there were birds singing. Even though we got another dump of snow over the weekend and the snowbank at the foot of the driveway is now probably 7 feet high, and Mom has dug laneways (they’re more than just paths, they’re bordering on tunnels) into the foot-and-a-half of snow around the feeders (I’m sure there’s more snow below, but it’s been compacted enough to walk on), and the temperature today was below freezing… despite all that, it felt like spring was on the air, and the birds seemed to sense it. Chickadees were singing their typical “fee-bee” song (I’ve always thought it sounded more like “hee-hoo”, but that’s what most field guides say, anyway). Several juncos were singing their beautiful bell-like trill, the first juncos I’ve heard singing this spring (mark it on the calendar!). Even the nuthatch was getting into it by adding his fast “ainh-ainh-ainh-ainh-ainh!” interspersed between his slower “ainh, ainh, ainh” calls. The juncos were staying rather well hidden in the spruce trees when I went out to try to capture one singing. This was the best photo I could manage, which would actually have been decent if it weren’t for the twigs in front of his face. That’s bird photography for you.

Bowl of Zick dough

I made Zick dough yesterday, and brought it with me to put out this morning when I arrived. My mom had a little dish that had originally housed hens-and-chickens one summer, but which was later used for birdseed, and then retired. It seemed appropriate for putting the suet dough out in, so I filled the bowl up and put it out in the middle of the feeder array. This is what it looked like all day. I may try moving it closer to one of the active feeders in the hopes of attracting some attention tomorrow. It may help that they’re calling for (yet more) snow tomorrow morning.

My dad was heading out this evening when he heard some screaming coming from behind the house, and glanced over just in time to witness an aborted murder attempt (a caution that the following images may not be suitable for everyone, although there’s very little in terms of graphic detail).

Weasel attack on rabbit

I went out with my camera to see if I could reconstruct the crime scene. The first thing I noted was the location where the attack had taken place. Fairly evident from the deep impressions in the snow, and a couple tufts of fur sitting lightly on the surface. Looking closer, some speckles of blood, but not a lot. I see some rabbit tracks to one direction, but it’s difficult to discern the tracks of the predator. Evidently a light-footed creature, but its identity is a mystery.

The deeper impressions in the snow look like the rabbit was forced onto its side, but it’s hard to tell. You can see what might be the marks of a face and ear one one side of the elongated body shape, and a long tail mark to the other side. But it’s not distinct, and I’m only guessing.

Weasel attack on rabbit

Looking at the tracks coming in, it appears the rabbit was coming from the shelter of the spruce trees across the open snow with the intent of picking up the packed-down trail at the side of the barn and following that. The other tracks, what little I can see, seem to suggest that the predator was lying in wait just behind a hole at the bottom of the barn door, and leapt out to great the rabbit as it approached. The rabbit put the brakes on in an attempt to turn tail, but wasn’t fast enough, and was pushed onto its side, where the predator managed to tear out a bit of fur. My dad coming out of the house at a rather inopportune time startled the predator and the rabbit’s life was spared by some rather lucky timing. Although, by the same token, the predator was denied its meal by some rather unlucky timing.

Weasel tracks?

That would be about all I’d be able to tell just from the tracks in the snow. However, add in the eyewitness account of my dad, and the predator is revealed to be a weasel in its sleek white winter coat. I am very sad that I missed seeing the whole drama, not least of all because of the characters involved. I’ve only ever seen a weasel once, also in winter, as a long, narrow, white flash zipping across the road. Not much of a look. I’m not sure we’ve had a record of a weasel at my parents’, either. If we have, it would’ve been many years ago.

Short-tailed weasels are circumpolar, meaning they’re found throughout the entire northern hemisphere. They’re called stoats in Europe, and in their white winter coat are usually referred to as ermine. Long-tailed weasels are restricted to the Americas. I’m not sure which species the individual would have been, but I’m guessing short-tailed (the smaller of the two) based on my dad’s description of the event in which he suggested the weasel was “holding on to the rabbit’s foot” or something similarly small-animal-ish. Both species eat rabbits, and the short-tailed was actually introduced into New Zealand in a misguided attempt to control the island’s introduced rabbit population. Instead, the weasel has nearly single-handedly threatened or caused the extinction of several endemic New Zealand bird species. Of course… you can’t blame it, it’s just being a weasel.

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5 responses to “Attempted murder with eyewitness

  1. I’ve learnt something today – I never knew that our Stoat was your Weasel.

    Of course, over here we have Stoats and Weasels, the European Weasel actually being the Least Weasel (love that name – not an animal that thinks of itself as being ‘least’ in any way!). They’re hard creatures to see, but on the BBC’s Autumnwatch programme last autumn someone had sent in some amateur video footage taken in their garden of a Stoat taking a bath in their birdbath – an amazing piece of film!

  2. Although you didn’t capture it on “film”, you must be thrilled to know it was there. I miss so much that I become aware of through their tracks–but the knowledge they were so close, thrills me. I need to remind myself there is more that we don’t see, than we do!

  3. themarvelousinnature

    @ Azziria: Now that would have been something to see, a weasel in the birdbath! I didn’t know the two were one and the same, either, till I was looking up information on the short-tailed and Wikipedia redirected me to ‘stoat’.

    @ Nina: It’s true that there’s so much going on “behind the scenes” in a landscape (winter or otherwise) that we never get a chance to see. That was part of my motivation to start the blog, to share with others, but also to observe and learn myself, because it’s so easy to just not notice if you’re not looking for it. And I agree it’s pretty neat to know there is (or, at least, was) a weasel hiding out in the back barn!

  4. I’m just in love with the oppossum photo. It’s just an amazing shot. I hope you don’t mind I dragged it to my desktop just so I could enjoy it more. Beautiful work!

  5. themarvelousinnature

    Thanks, Julia! I don’t mind at all that you borrow it, it’s there to be enjoyed!

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