Birds

Weasels climb trees readily and well (Figure 6.4), even to great heights, visiting the nests of birds and squirrels, running fearlessly along the branches and down again head first (Figure 6.5). While searching along branches, in holes, and in crevices in trees, weasels often find birds' nests and roosting birds (Dunn 1977), or other potential meals. DeVos (1960) once caught a hare in a trap, left it lodged a meter up a small tree, and came back to find a long-tailed weasel dragging it off. He retrieved it and put in into a larger tree, this time 3.5 m up, and stood back to watch. The weasel searched around and eventually found it, climbed up, and got it down again. When the hare was returned to the same place, the weasel found it again within a minute. Every time it climbed up and down with as much skill as any squirrel. The longtail watched by Pearce (1937) climbed spirally, hugging the trunk with its paws and wrapping its sinuous body around it. The weasel appeared to be familiar with this method of climbing, and did not go up more directly even when in great haste (Figure. 6.4).

Birds that feed on the ground in daytime are fair game for stoats, and the development of radio collars has increased the chances that someone will see them doing it. Murphy and Dowding (1995) watched, on two separate occasions, a collared stoat stalking yellow-crowned parakeets and chaffinches feeding on grass seed at ground level.

Song birds and their nests present little potential danger to weasels, but larger birds are different. Weasels do attack them, at least occasionally, and some of these attempts can misfire. A weasel jumping up at the neck of a large bird will often coil up its body and hold on with all four sets of claws, refusing to let go even if carried high into the air. For example, Barrow (1953) saw a waterhen flying overhead with a common weasel clinging to its throat (Figure 6.6). Unfortunately for the weasel, the bird dived into deep water, taking the weasel with it. The same story is sometimes told of predatory birds that have made the mistake of attacking a weasel and failing to grasp it firmly, allowing the weasel to twist in its talons and strike back (Chapter 11)—although in the case of the waterhen observed by Barrow, the weasel appears to have attacked the bird first. Weasels are certainly bold enough to try such an unlikely target if really hungry; one longtail was even observed trying to steal prey from a snowy owl (Boxall 1979). Such fearless behavior "could contribute to the high level of predation on weasels" (Fagerstone 1987)—indeed, it is almost a form of "weasel roulette" (King 1991d).

Figure 6.4 Weasels are nimble climbers, and can easily scale any rough surface. They climb up trees almost as confidently as any squirrel.

Like many predators, weasels sometimes have to tolerate having the tables turned on them by flocks of aggressive birds. For example, Hunter (1969) traced a loud outburst of chattering to a group of sparrows mobbing a common weasel. It darted into a flowerbed, pursued by sparrows dive-bombing it from all directions. Twice it broke cover, and twice it was driven back. It had to work its way under cover about 9 m along the bed, followed all the way by the mob, before it could finally escape. A weasel in such a position can hardly retaliate, since such excited birds would be virtually uncatchable. Mobbing birds usually do a weasel no physical harm, but they alert every other possible quarry in the neighborhood.

Some birds will dive-bomb predators approaching too close to their nests, as did one pair of gulls observed by Hosey and Jaques (1998) defending their egg from a stoat. When one gull struck the stoat with its foot, the stoat bit back, and the gull momentarily lifted it into the air a meter or so before dropping it.

Grape Weasels

The stoat, having lost the advantage of surprise, wisely decided to hunt somewhere quieter.

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