The Small Predators

Sixty years ago, I prowled the field by my house with a single-shot 22, specializing in gophers – Columbia Ground Squirrels.  In the sixties, the war on gophers was the sort of thing that would have made Sadaam Hussein proud – rifle fire, traps, strychnine oats and compound 1080.  The rodent population would dip, but in the next couple of years, reproduction would bring the population back up.  Ten years ago, after the cancer, I walked through the grass – and in most of the places where I remembered ground squirrel colonies, I found only a few holes, and those unoccupied.

Watching from the pickup, I realized the change – as Dad had reduced grazing, naturally the grass grew taller – and I watched a long-tailed weasel hunting the ground squirrel colony.  Five years later, as I started construction on the house, I encountered only two spots with ground squirrels – reduced grazing, and a better habitat for the small predators to hunt had changed the fields from being good gopher habitat to good weasel habitat.  I suspect the weasel population is larger now, but they’re a bit hard to count. It is amazing to see how effective and effortless the 21st century ground squirrel control is.

Long-tailed weasel. Image Credit: National Park Service

Voles have replaced ground squirrels as the rodent in the field.  A couple feral cats hunt them – but I learned more about the small predators when I took the canoe into the pond to work on an aerator.  The tale has its tragedy – I was sixty-eight years old the first time I ever tipped a canoe.  Pushed back with the paddle, a least weasel ran up my arm and perched on my left shoulder, and into the water I went.  The tiny weasel didn’t so much as get splashed – he ran into the stern, back where the flotation foam was, and peeked out as I pulled the canoe to shore.  Cute little guy, and it was funny once I got over the shock and went back for dry clothes.  It is a bit embarrassing to tip a canoe when an animal weighing less than 3 ounces startles you.  Startles, surprises, you understand.  Not scares.  Definitely not frightens.

I figured I should clean out the flotation block, and when I opened it up, I found 52 vole skulls.  The least weasel was living in the middle of the flotation foam – a well insulated home for the little guy, and from that base had been hunting voles through the winter and into the Spring.  Obviously the finest form of vole control available.  I am a bit more cautious taking the canoe out anymore – though without the element of surprise I really don’t believe a 3 ounce weasel can capsize me.  They are actually a cute little beast, as this picture shows.

By Jerzy Strzelecki – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

I’ve also seen the short-tailed weasel here – another vole specialist, white with a black-tipped tail,  The field guides for all 3 weasels describe habitat as “Found in almost all land habitats near water.”  Obviously, with the ponds, we’re near water. It looks like ground squirrel control is actually easy – don’t trap the weasels, and don’t overgraze.  I can do nothing as well as anybody.

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