Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V21, Page 977 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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POLECAT, the common name given to any member of the Musteline genus Putorius (see CARNIVOaA). The polecats form a small group confined to the northern hemisphere, of which the best known and most widely distributed is the common polecat of Europe (P. foetidus or P. putorius). This animal, at least so far as its disposition, size and proportions are concerned, is well known in its domesticated condition as the ferret, which is but a tamed albino variety of the true pole-cat. The colour of the latter, however, instead of the familiar yellowish-white of the ferret, is of a dark brown tint above and black below, the face being variegated with dark brown and white markings. Its skull is rough, strongly ridged, and altogether of a far more powerful type than those of the stoats, weasels or martens; the skull of the female is very much smaller and lighter than that of the male. The fur is long, coarse, and of comparatively small value, and changes its colour very little, if at all, at the different seasons of the year. The polecat ranges over the greater part of Europe, reaching northwards into southern Sweden and in Russia to the region of the White Sea. It does not occur in the extreme south, but is common everywhere throughout central Europe. In the Alps it ranges far above the tree-line during the summer, but retreats in winter to lower ground. It is confined to the northern counties of England and Scotland, where it is becoming very rare, owing to persecutions from game-keepers, and in Ireland it appears to be extinct. In fine weather it lives either in the open air, in holes, fox-earths, rabbit-warrens, under rocks or in wood-stacks; while in winter it seeks the protection of deserted buildings, barns or stables. During the day it sleeps in its hiding place, sallying forth at night to plunder dovecots and hen-houses. It climbs but little, and shows far less activity than the marten. It feeds ordinarily on small mammals, such as rabbits, hamsters, rats and mice, on such birds as it can catch, especially poultry and pigeons, and also on snakes, lizards, frogs, fish and eggs. Its prey is devoured only in its lair; but, even though it can carry away but a single victim, it commonly kills everything that comes in its way, often destroying all the inhabitants of a hen-house in order to gratify its passion for slaughter. The pairing time is towards the end of the winter, and the young, from three to eight in number, are born in April or May, after a period of gestation of about two months. The young, if taken early, may be easilytrained, like ferrets, for rabbit-catching. The polecat is very tenacious of life and will bear many severe wounds before succumbing; it is also said to receive with impunity the bite of the adder. Its fetid smell has become proverbial. To this it is indebted for its generic name Putorius (derived, as are also the low Lat. putacius, Fr. putois, and Ital. puzzola, from puteo), as well as the designation foumart (i.e. foul marten) and its other English names, fitchet, fitchew. Attempts to account for the first syllable of the word polecat rest entirely on conjecture. The Siberian polecat (Putorius 'eversmanni) is very like the European in size, colour and proportions, but with head and back both nearly or quite white, and skull more heavily built and sharply constricted behind the orbits, at least in fully adult individuals. It inhabits the greater part of south-western Siberia, extending from Tibet into the steppes of south-eastern European Russia. The black-footed or American polecat (Putorius nigripes) is a native of the central plateau of the United States, and extends southwards into Texas. It is often called the prairie-dog hunter, as it is nearly always found in the warrens of that animal. The fur is cream-yellow, the legs are brown, and the feet and tail-tip black. The mottled polecat (Putorius sarmaticus), a species occur-ring in southern Russia and south-western Asia, and extending from eastern Poland to Afghanistan, differs from other polecats both by its smaller size and its remarkable coloration, the whole of the upper-parts being marbled with large irregular reddish spots on a white ground, while the under-side, limbs and tail are deep shining black. Its habits appear to be much like those of the common polecat. (R. L. *)
End of Article: POLECAT
WILLIAM POLE (1814—1900)

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