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Voracious visitor

Snowy white in winter, ermines constantly seek food

February 9, 2011
By MIKE LYNCH, News Outdoors Writer
LAKE PLACID — The Lawrence family of Lake Placid has been getting a relatively rare treat this winter as an ermine has visited their property several times. The visits have given them the opportunity to take some photos of the snow-white animal with the black-tipped tail.

“I’ve been hunting for 17 years up there, and I’ve seen probably two in the woods in my lifetime,” said Frank Lawrence, who took some of the photos while stopping by his parents’ house. “I’ve seen four occurrences, five occurrences just at the house. I see it more in a residential area. Either there’s a high supply of mice around or there’s no food in the woods.”

Ermines are part of the weasel species. These long, thin animals are smaller than house cats or even martens. They are brown in the warmer months when there are longer days and turn white when temperatures drop and the days are shorter.

The white coat in the winter allows them to blend into the snowy surroundings and avoid predators. One interesting feature of the ermine in the winter is that the tip of its tail is black.

“The black tip is a bit of a distractor for the hawk,” said Jorie Favreau, a professor of wildlife biology at Paul Smith’s College.

Biologists believe that hawks will often go after the black tip — perhaps thinking it’s a small rodent — instead of the body of the ermine. This can allow ermines to escape.

Ermines themselves are pretty aggressive predators, often feeding on small mammals such as voles and mice. They also have sturdy jaws.

“They’re fast and they have really, really strong teeth and jaws,” Favreau said. “My students prep skulls, and a lot of times, the lower jaws will fall out of the upper jaw. But with the ermine jaw, it is just set — the lower jaw in there. So they don’t even have to use muscles to even hold their lower jaw in place. Just the way their whole skull’s constructed is meant to be really strong.”

They also don’t have much of a problem getting around in the winter, according to Favreau.

“The snow is not even an obstacle for the ermine,” she said. “If you’re a large-bodied animal, and you’re falling through the snow, it’s tough. You burn a lot of energy, and the snow really isn’t a detriment to them.”

But Favreau did say that ermines have to spend a lot of time on the move, looking for food. That’s because they burn a lot of calories in the winter.

“They are really inquisitive and they are really driven by their metabolism,” Favreau said. “They eat about a quarter of their body weight per day.”

That’s probably why this one is hanging around Lawrence’s house. It’s looking for some food.

Article Photos

Photos courtesy of the Lawrence family
This ermine was seen outside of the Lawrence’s home in Lake Placid. Ermines turn white in the winter with a black tail that acts as a decoy for predators. Do you have interesting photos of wildlife? Send them to



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