Ermine, a name given to several weasels, of the genus putorius (Cuv.), inhabiting the northern parts of both hemispheres, and which in winter exchange their brown color for a white livery more or less pure. The European ermine (P. erminea, Linn.) is about 10 in. long, with the tail half the length of the body; in summer it is reddish brown above, whitish below, with the tip of the tail black; in this livery it is called the stoat in Great Britain. In winter the upper parts become white, with a yellow tint beneath, the tip of the tail remaining black at all seasons; in this color the fur was formerly highly prized, especially for ornamenting garments pertaining to royalty and offices of dignity; for the purity of its whiteness it was taken as the emblem of incorruptibility and integrity. This animal is widely distributed in northern Europe and Asia, extending its range to the highest latitudes visited by man. Its habits are sanguinary, like those of all its genus, though from its smaller size it does less mischief in the farm yard than the polecat; it attacks and kills rats, mice, moles, and young poultry, sucking their blood; it often domesticates itself in houses, where its destruction of rats and mice in part compensates for its damage to the farmer in the hen house.
There are at least five North American weasels entitled to the name of ermine; but it is very improbable that the P. er-minea is found on this continent. The animal called ermine by Audubon and Bachman, and considered by them the same as the European, was first described as a distinct species by De Kay as P. Noveboracensis. The color in summer is chestnut brown above, whitish below and on the inner surface of the limbs; edge of upper lip white, and end of tail black; in winter, in northern latitudes, the hairs are snowy white from the roots, except on the end of the tail, which is black for about 1 3/4 in.; south of Pennsylvania the color remains brown throughout the year. The head is depressed and acute; the ears are large and extend far round the meatus; the body is elongated, and the tail cylindrical, thickly clothed with fur about 1 1/4 in. long at the end; the limbs are short and stout; there are five toes on each foot, the inner the shortest, all covered with fur, which hides the naked pads on the soles; on each side of the under surface of the tail are glands which secrete an offensive musky fluid. The fur is short, but very soft. The length to root of tail is 10 1/2 to 11 in.; length of tail to end of hair 6 1/2 to 7 in., the bones extending about 5 1/2 in.
It is a graceful, quick, and fearless animal, living under logs and heaps of stones, and in holes in rocks. It destroys rabbits, grouse, and domestic fowls much larger than itself; satiated with the blood of a single victim, it kills all within its reach from an instinctive propensity to kill; it has been known to destroy 40 fowls in a single night; from its vermiform body it is able to pursue hares into their burrows and the field mice into their galleries. Though occasionally destructive to poultry and eggs, it is much more a benefactor to the agriculturist by killing the mice which devour his grain, potatoes, and grasses; it will soon rid a granary of the largest rats, and a field of the wheat-loving ground squirrels. It is not shy, and has been so far domesticated as to be employed like the ferret of Europe in hunting hares; it is easily taken in any kind of trap. It is not common anywhere; it prefers stony regions, and is solitary and nocturnal in its habits, though occasionally seen at all hours of the day. It is a poor swimmer and avoids water, and rarely ascends trees except when pursued. The young, from four to seven in number, are born between the last of March and the last of May, according to latitude.
The coat is shed twice a year, in October and March, the autumn fur becoming white, and the spring brown. According to Prof. Baird, this species cannot certainly be traced N. of Massachusetts nor W. of Wisconsin; it has been taken at Fort Smith, Ark., and probably is found in most of the southern and southwestern states at a distance from the sea-coast. The most striking differences between this and the European ermine are, that in the latter the caudal vertebras are only a quarter the length of the head and body, the terminal hairs being nearly two thirds of their length, or from 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 in.; while in the former these vertebras are nearly half the length of the body, the hairs being only about a quarter of their length, or not more than 1 1/2 in.; in our species the ears and naked portion of the nose are larger; the coloration also differs in the much greater extension of the light colors on the lower parts and inside of the limbs in the European animal, and in the greater comparative extent of the black tip to the tail; there are 4 sacral and 21 caudal vertebrae in our ermine, and only 3 of the former and 19 of the latter in the European. The little ermine (P. Richard-sonii, Bonap., or P. agilis, Aud. and Bach.), which replaces the preceding species north of Massachusetts, is from 8 to 9 in. long, exclusive of the tail, which is slightly more than 5 in.; the color in summer is dark chestnut brown above and whitish below, with the whole upper jaw brown, and the end of tail black one third to nearly one half of its length; in winter white with a black-tipped tail.
It is smaller and darker, with more slender and delicate feet, than the preceding species; its geographical distribution is from 65° N. to Massachusetts on the E. and Vancouver island on the W. coast. The long-tailed ermine (P. longicauda, Rich.) approaches the ferrets in size, being about 11 in. long exclusive of the tail, which is 6 to 7 in.; the color in summer is light olivaceous brown above, and brownish yellow below, with the chin and edge of upper lip white; in winter white, with a black-tipped tail; the muzzle is broad, the hair short, coarse, and stiff, and the ears low and short; the feet are large, with well developed claws. It is found about the upper Missouri and Platte rivers. The least ermine (P. Cicognanii, Bonap., or P. fuscus, Aud. and Bach.) has an average length of 8 in., with a tail of 3 or 4 in.; the colors are as in the other species in summer and winter; the edge of the upper lip is white; it is found from Labrador to Massachusetts, and as far west as Puget's sound.
Putorius Noveboracensis in Summer Dress.
Putorius Noveboracensis in Winter Dress.