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The black-footed ferret is a member of the family Mustelidae which is often referred to as the weasel family. Other members of this family include the mink, badger, marten, fisher, stoat, polecat, wolverine and domestic ferret.
Species: M. nigripes
Black-footed ferrets are long, slender animals. The average size is 18 to 24 inches long including a 5 to 6 inch tail, and 1½ to 2½ pounds in weight. Males tend to be slightly larger than females. Female ferrets are called “jills”, males are “hobs” and young are “kits”. Their short, sleek fur is a yellow-buff color, lighter on the belly and nearly white on the forehead, muzzle, and throat. They have a black face mask, black feet, and a black-tipped tail. They have large rounded ears and short legs with long front claws developed for digging. The average life span of a ferret in the wild is 1-3 years, and 4-6 years for ferrets in captivity.
With the exception of breeding season and females caring for their kits, black-footed ferrets are solitary animals. They are nocturnal (most active at night) and fossorial (live mostly underground) predators. Black-footed ferrets have a variety of vocalizations, including chatters, chuckles, barks, and hisses. Young ferrets are quite playful, and can sometimes be seen “dancing” above ground (see the video below).
Video by D. Jachowski/USFWS
Black-footed ferrets mate in spring, usually in March or April, and gestation (length of pregnancy) is 42 days. The average litter size is 3-4 kits, although they can have anywhere from 1-10 kits. Females whelp (give birth) in vacant prairie dog burrows. The female alone cares for the kits, which are born blind and helpless. The kits develop their markings around 21 days of age, and open their eyes around 35 days of age. They begin to come above ground about 70 days of age, and stay with their mother until fall. Click here for more information on breeding.
Black-footed ferrets are native to the North American shortgrass and mixed grass prairie. They were once found in 12 states in the U.S. as well as southern Saskatchewan, Canada and parts of northern Mexico. Originally, the prairie dog ecosystem occupied 20 percent of the entire western rangeland, allowing ferrets to cover a large geographic area. Today, less than two percent of their original geographic distribution remains. Wild black-footed ferrets are now found only at reintroduction sites.
Black-footed ferrets spend the majority of their time in vacant prairie dog burrows. They venture above ground at night mainly to go from one burrow to the next to look for prey.
Prairie dogs make up over 90 percent of the black-footed ferret’s diet. The ferret enters a burrow and, upon finding a prairie dog, administers a throat bite thus suffocating the prairie dog. One black-footed ferret eats one prairie dog every three days. Ferrets cache or store their food thus minimizing aboveground exposure to other predators. The most common predators on ferrets are owls, coyotes and badgers.