Weasels are nocturnal, small mammals living across North America. They live a solitary lifestyle and have a varied diet.
Weasels are carnivores and will eat almost any animals they find. Weasels eat small mammals, insects, lizards, frogs, birds, and birds’ eggs. They are opportunistic and will store food for later. Weasels eat up to 50% of their body weight every day and can eat up to 10 times a day.
Various stories about the diet and hunting skills of weasels exist, and most are entirely incorrect. In this article, we look at what weasels eat and debunk some myths and stories.
What Do Weasels Eat?
Weasels are opportunistic hunters. They feed up to 10 times a day and are also known to store food for later use. They will hunt any small animals they find, including mice, rats, and voles, which make up more than 80% of their diet.
Weasels will also feed on frogs, lizards, birds, eggs, small snakes, and rabbits. They are known to steal hens from farms if they have a chance, and during summer, will occasionally eat berries.
Weasels will eat small fish, amphibians, turtles, hedgehogs, and invertebrates when no other prey is available. In northern regions, weasels also prey on collared lemmings.
They have to eat many times a day as they have a high metabolic rate. Due to their size, the quantity of one meal is usually relatively small. Weasels can eat up to 50% of their body weight in one day. A weasel needs to feed regularly as they cannot store fat in their bodies.
What Do Different Species Eat?
There are three species of weasel living in North America, and they vary in appearance, size, and feeding habits.
Voles and mice are the preferred prey of the least weasel. The least weasel will also feed on small birds, insects, and carrion. They are the smallest species of weasel, and their prey is proportionally smaller too.
The diet of the short-tailed weasel consists mainly of rats, mice, shrews, and chipmunks. If those are difficult to find, they will eat eggs, fish, insects, and birds. Their diet is similar to the long-tailed weasel.
The larger long-tailed weasel feeds on mice, rats, rabbits, gophers, voles, and chipmunks. They prefer mammals, but they will also eat insects and small bird species if unavailable. They will hunt their prey in the vicinity of a water source.
How Do Weasels Hunt?
Weasels rely on finding food through their excellent sense of smell. They hunt by swaying their heads from side to side to pick up the scent of their prey.
Weasels have been seen to jump in the air to catch birds and jump on them to immobilize them before biting their neck to kill them with one bite. If they cannot take their prey down with one bite, they will keep biting, inflicting wounds to the throat or the spinal column to sever significant blood vessels.
- Stealthy Approach: Weasels are small and agile predators, which allows them to approach prey quietly and unnoticed. They rely on their excellent sense of smell and hearing to locate potential prey.
- Bursts of Speed: Weasels are known for their incredible speed and agility. They can make sudden, rapid dashes to catch prey. They often use this speed to close the gap between themselves and their prey quickly.
- Ambush Predators: Weasels are ambush predators. They often hide and wait for their prey to come close. When the moment is right, they launch a surprise attack, relying on their speed and sharp claws to capture their victim.
- Bite to the Neck: Weasels typically kill their prey by delivering a swift bite to the neck. Their long, slender bodies allow them to access hard-to-reach areas, such as burrows, where they can deliver this lethal bite. They have sharp teeth and strong jaws, which are essential for this method of hunting.
- Persistence: Weasels are known for their tenacity when hunting. They can pursue prey for extended periods, even if it goes into a burrow or another hiding place. They are relentless in their pursuit, making them formidable hunters.
What Are The Feeding Habits Of Weasels?
Weasels prefer rodents and mammals over other food sources as the nutritional value of rodents is higher than most small amphibians or lizards. Because many small mammals live in burrows, weasels will enter the hole, kill the animal, and temporarily use the den for shelter and food storage.
Weasels must remain thin to be able to enter the burrows of small animals. Weasels are excellent swimmers who can catch fish and have extraordinary climbing skills to steal eggs from birds’ nests.
Weasels do not store excess fat and have to feed all year round. The ability to catch and consume a varied diet is essential and changes with the season.
When prey is available in high numbers and variety in spring, the weasel will eat rodents and any other food that does not require a lot much energy to catch.
All animals are less active in winter, so weasels must locate burrows to find rodents because there are fewer eggs, frogs, and fish. Weasels need to eat a lot in winter to keep warm and healthy, and they will also steal burrows from their prey to protect them from freezing temperatures.
Do Weasels Eat Livestock?
Weasels are well-known for their aggressive nature, and they can kill prey larger than themselves. They often kill prey much larger than necessary for their food intake. Multiple cases have been reported where weasels have killed hens or rabbits kept by farmers.
There are stories about packs of hungry, aggressive weasels killing large animals and attacking humans, even drinking their blood. These are, however, not true, and are folklore told throughout different cultures.
Weasels live solitary lifestyles, except when mating and when females are raising their young. It is possible to see males and females hunting together in the mating season. When the adult female raises her offspring, she will take them hunting. The litter can contain between six and eighteen young, so people often mistake them for packs.
Weasels cannot kill prey of livestock size, such as sheep. They do occasionally kill ducks and geese, but this is the largest prey they will attack.
Farmers are not weasel lovers because weasels can severely damage poultry populations. However, weasels can also be helpful, as they eat common pests like rats in large quantities.
Do Weasels Eat Pets?
Weasels are aggressive and will stand up and fight any animal that poses a threat. They may also try to attack humans if they feel in danger or cornered.
Weasels are predators, but they are small. The largest species living in North America, the long-tailed weasel, weighs between 3 and 9 ounces (0.34 kg). They are 51 cm (11-20 inches) long, including their tails, which make up half of their size.
Weasels are much smaller than an average house cat. Cats are predators with sharp claws and strong teeth. Stories about weasels eating pets such as cats and dogs are myths and folklore.
One more reason behind these stories is fishers. They are a part of the weasel family, and there have been documented cases of them killing cats in the wild.
Fishers are much larger than weasels, and during winter, when no other food source is available, they have been known to attack small lynx.
If a weasel can’t kill a house cat, there is no chance it could kill an average-sized dog. There is a chance it could kill a tiny breed of dog, smaller than a rabbit, but those would never cross paths with a weasel in the wild.
What Are The Predators Of Weasels?
Weasels are the smallest carnivores on the planet, and they are prey to various animals, including cats and dogs. There have been documented cases where cats and dogs have killed weasels.
Predators do not eat other predators very often. Larger animals will kill smaller ones to eliminate the competition but generally do not feed on them. However, this does mean that weasels are under constant threat of being killed by larger animals.
- Birds of Prey: Various raptors, such as owls, hawks, and eagles, are known to prey on weasels, particularly the smaller species like the least weasel. These birds have keen eyesight and are skilled hunters.
- Foxes: Larger foxes, like the red fox, can be a threat to weasels. While weasels are agile and can evade predators, foxes can still catch them, especially if the weasel is caught off-guard.
- Coyotes: Coyotes are opportunistic predators and may target weasels if they come across them. They have a wide-ranging diet, including small mammals like weasels.
- Bobcats: In regions where bobcats are present, they can pose a threat to weasels. Bobcats are skilled hunters of small to medium-sized mammals.
- Martens: Some species of martens, such as the pine marten, are known to prey on weasels. These arboreal predators are agile and quick.
- Snakes: Large constrictor snakes, like some species of rat snakes and pine snakes, have been known to consume weasels, particularly when weasels are seeking prey in burrows.
- Domestic Cats and Dogs: In areas where weasels coexist with domestic cats and dogs, these pets can occasionally catch and kill weasels.
What To Feed A Pet Weasel?
In recent years, weasels have become popular as pets. People see them as exotic and exciting animals to keep at home. Having a pet weasel is not an easy animal to look after as they are not domesticated animals. Feeding them can be demanding too.
If they are not the only pets in the house, they could attack and possibly kill and eat other pets. Having a parrot, rabbit, or hamster in the same house could be deadly.
Giving pet weasels live animals for food shouldn’t be done. Weasels are very similar to ferrets, and there is dry and canned food for ferrets available on the market.
Some weasel owners give them cat food, as both species are carnivores, but cat food has different additives, including vitamins and minerals than ferret food. Ferret food contains more protein than cat food.
It is essential to choose high-quality food manufacturers that contain a high meat content. Cheaper alternatives include a lot of grain as fillers to lower the price. Food with fillers is not suitable for weasels, and it can cause health problems long-term. Buying quality ferret food is expensive but necessary if you want to keep a pet weasel.
Occasionally, owners will give them dead mice, usually sold to feed pet snakes, and it is also possible to feed weasels with poultry.
In the wild, ferrets will combine different prey, and feeding them mice and chicken at home can’t provide all the nutrients necessary for a healthy life. A balanced diet, including dry and canned food, is essential.
When dosing food, owners should not give too much at once but rather feed their pet weasel in small quantities more often, which imitates their natural feeding pattern. Weasels may also hide bits of food and store them for later, which is not ideal in a home.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.