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The Ermine - Harper's


The silky white fur which forms the ornament of many a royal robe is the skin of the ermine—a graceful and saucy member of the weasel tribe. The ermine is found in all Northern countries. In the summer it is a reddish-brown creature, but no sooner does the reign of winter begin than it attires itself in purest white, with the exception of the tip of its tail, which is glossy jet black. It is thought by naturalists that the coat of the ermine changes color at the beginning of winter, but that the change in the spring is effected by shedding the white hairs, which are replaced by new ones of a brown tint.

The ermine (sometimes called stoat) is somewhat larger than the common weasel, but not unlike it in its habits. It lives in hollow trees and among rocks, wherever it can find a snug hiding-place. Although it often comes out to frolic in the sun, its hunting-time begins with the setting of the sun. Toward evening, when the shadows are rapidly lengthening across the clearings, the ermine may be seen issuing forth for its night campaign. Now it twists its lithe body like an eel in and out among the rocks and underbrush; now it stands for a moment motionless, peering about in search of a victim, its slender little body arched up in the middle like an enraged cat. It is always on the alert, whisking here and there, sniffing at every hole and corner where perchance some rat or rabbit may lie concealed.

Odd stories are told of the extreme boldness of the ermine, and some of them are no doubt true. A celebrated German hunter relates that, creeping through the forest in search of game, he came to the edge of a clearing, where he saw two ermine frolicking about on the ground. Seizing a stone, he threw it with such sure aim that one of the little creatures was knocked senseless, when, to his astonishment, the other, giving a loud cry, sprang at him, and running up his clothes with the rapidity of lightning, fastened its sharp teeth in the back of his neck. With the utmost difficulty he succeeded in freeing himself from the angry ermine, which bit his face and hands severely in the struggle.

The ermine is a cruel enemy of all small beasts, a despoiler of birds' nests, as it likes nothing better than a supper of fresh eggs, and a most heartless persecutor of the snug homes of rabbits and squirrels. Hares appear conscious of their entire helplessness in the presence of this dangerous foe, and although they are swifter of foot, the bright, glittering eye of the ermine paralyzes them with terror; and should they attempt to fly, the ermine well understands the art of riding on the back of its victim, its sharp teeth fastened in its throat, until, exhausted and faint, the stricken hare is forced to succumb.


Even the powerful water-rat is no match for the ermine. It may spring into the pool by which it lives, and swim rapidly among the reeds; but the ermine, although its home is on land, is as good a swimmer as the rat, and fastening its teeth in its victim's throat, it drags it, helpless and dying, on shore.

In May or June the ermine seeks some soft, secluded corner, from whence it comes forth in a few days with five or six playful, tiny children. No pussy cat is a prouder, fonder mother than the ermine. It bestows the tenderest care and caresses on its little ones until they are three or four months old, and capable of shifting for themselves. Should danger threaten its children, the ermine will seize them all in its mouth, and fly to a place of safety; even if compelled to swim a deep river to escape capture, it will carry its babies safely over.

The fur of the ermine is very much valued. The species which inhabit Siberia and the most northern countries of Europe are the most sought after by traders, as the intense cold of those regions blanches the fur to silvery whiteness. These creatures are usually caught in traps, and specimens are sometimes kept by the trappers as pets. A Swedish gentleman relates his experience with one that was captured about Christmastime, when its beautiful silky coat was of the purest white, with the exception of the pretty black tip on its tail.

It was first placed by its owner in a large room, where it soon made itself completely at home. It would run up the curtains like a mouse, twist itself into the smallest corners, and at length, one day, when it had been invisible for several hours, it was discovered snugly curled up in an unused stove funnel, its beautiful coat smeared with rust and soot.

When its cage was ready, the ermine, after being placed in it, developed an extraordinary temper. It would dash about, climbing on the wire, and uttering a loud hissing cry, as if protesting against confinement. When it went to sleep, it would curl up in a ring, twisting its little tail around its nose. It was fed with milk, which it drank eagerly, with hens' eggs, the contents of which it sucked, and with small birds, which it ate, leaving nothing but the feathers.

A large brown rat was one day put into the cage alive. At first the ermine curled in a corner, and allowed the rat to drink its milk, and range about the floor. But the daring rat approached too near the lord of the domain. With one quick spring the ermine was on the back of its antagonist, its long teeth buried in its throat. A terrible battle ensued, the rat several times freeing itself from the ermine, which returned again and again, until at length the rat was stretched lifeless and bleeding on the floor of the cage. The ermine then devoured it, leaving nothing but the head, skin, and tail, thus thoroughly disproving the assertion that the whole weasel family only suck the blood of their victims.

In our illustration the ermine is represented in deadly contest with a large brown rat (Mus decumanus), called the Norway rat in England, although the species is said to be unknown in the country after which it is named. This rat is supposed to have been brought into Europe from Asia early in the eighteenth century, and about one hundred years ago it made its way to America. The Germans call it the migratory rat, because, starting from its native place in the far East, it has made itself at home in nearly every country. It is one of the boldest and most destructive of its tribe, and a dreadful nuisance wherever it goes.