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Weaselly visitors descend on Penngrove

Sarah Keiser shares a peaceful existence with many wild critters at her Penngrove farm, though one unexpected menace recently weaseled its way into her chicken coop to incite mammalian mayhem.

Despite her two fearless guard dogs keeping watch, a weasel - a pint-sized, adorable, yet bloodthirsty animal that’s native to Sonoma County - ravaged her coop and killed several birds about three months ago. Her dogs have managed to fend off coyotes and other predators, even catching two weasels in the past three and a half years, but a single slight slayer snuck in to kill three birds before her canine companions took notice, she said.

“They’re crazy, crazy hardcore hunters,” Keiser said. “The way I farm, I try to use predator safe practices … but weasels are really smart and really quick and they get into tiny spaces and kill everything.”

For other Sonoma County residents, including Melissa Morita, weasels have proven to be more amicable neighbors. She’s lived in Penngrove for 30 years, but she only began to see weasels making occasional appearances about three years ago.

“It’s popping up over by my bird feeder in the back and my chickens are out in the field,” she said. “He’s just checking everything out - but they’re very fast and ferocious.”

Two-decade Liberty Valley resident Jeff Tuttle spotted his first weasel about 17 years ago, and he’s only had two other sightings since.

“I was walking up my driveway alongside the house and all of a sudden, a weasel comes scooting around the corner and just running like crazy right behind him was Garfield, our cat, just chasing him,” he said. “The weasel ran into the woodpile and Garfield couldn’t get in there.”

While it may come as a surprise to some that weasels are alive and thriving in the greater Petaluma area, the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue is very familiar with the dainty destroyers. The Petaluma-based nonprofit usually rescues, rehabilitates and releases about five injured weasels a year, according to Education and Outreach Coordinator Michelle Fowler.

The long-tailed weasel is indigenous to the area, and is recognizable by its distinctive facial markings and a black tip on its tail, she said. A full-grown weasel is only about eight inches long, but is capable of inflicting colossal damage to unsuspecting prey such as birds or small animals, killing with a quick bite to the neck, she said.

“They are incredibly talented, even a weasel of a very small size - about four inches long - is capable of taking down a jack rabbit,” she said.

She said most of the rescue’s weasels come from Sebastopol, though they seek out other habitats in places like crop fields, small wooded refuges and suburban landscapes, according the University of Michigan. The omnivores make homes in hollow logs, rock piles and under barns, or in a displaced rodent’s burrow, according to the university.

Residents sometimes mistake ferrets, which are illegal to keep as pets and are sometimes released into the wild by their owners, as weasels. Though it’s “incredibly rare,” a creek-dwelling mink can also be misidentified as a weasel, she said.

“They’re very fast and very wiggly,” Fowler said.

Though it’s still rare to catch a glimpse of a weasel, residents might be seeing them with more frequency since a rainy winter ushered in an abundant crop of food that’s allowed for a boom in wildlife populations, Fowler said. She encouraged residents to take precautions to protect their chicken coops, including creating barriers or contacting the rescue about a natural deterrent made from the scat of predatory animals.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)

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