National Zoo

What Sound Does a Black-footed Ferret Make? And Other Ferret Facts

Black-footed ferrets are well-suited for their prairie environment, where their colors help them blend in with grassland soils and plants.
Black-footed ferrets are well-suited for their prairie environment, where their colors help them blend in with grassland soils and plants.

You asked the internet, we answered.

We ferreted out the answers to some of the most-searched questions about North America’s only native ferret species. These playful animals were once thought to be extinct but have made an incredible recovery, thanks in large part to the work of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

What sound does a black-footed ferret make?

These vocal critters make a lot of noise. They use a loud chatter to sound an alarm in the presence of danger and a hiss to show agitation or fear. Females whimper to encourage their young to follow them around, and males often “chortle” to females during breeding.

Are they active during the day?

Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal. They typically spend just a few minutes above ground each day during the hours following sunrise to hunt and find new burrows or mates. Their remaining time is spent underground in prairie dog burrows — away from predators and harsh weather — where they sleep, hunt and give birth.

Do they live in groups?

Black-footed ferrets actually live solitary lives, except during the breeding season and while females are caring for their young.

What do black-footed ferrets look like?

These slender, wiry animals are covered in yellow-beige fur. As their moniker implies, their feet are black — as is the fur around their eyes and at the tip of their tails. Black-footed ferrets are well-suited for their prairie environment, where their colors help them blend in with grassland soils and plants.

Two black-footed ferrets with slender bodies, small feet, and tan and black fur

Do black-footed ferrets eat prairie dogs?

The rumors are true; black-footed ferrets eat prairie dogs. Prairie dogs constitute 90 percent of a wild black-footed ferret’s diet.

Despite their small size, ferrets have a big appetite. Their high metabolic rate requires that they eat large quantities of food. In fact, a ferret may eat more than 100 prairie dogs in a single year. The remainder of their diet includes mice, rats, ground squirrels, rabbits, birds and the occasional reptile or insect.

How do they hunt?

Ferrets travel from burrow to burrow in search of a meal, aided by long guard hairs on their forelimbs that can sense movement in the dark, underground systems. Once a ferret locates a prairie dog, it suffocates it with a bite to the throat.

Do they have any predators?

Yes! Their primary predators are coyotes, badgers and owls.

Where do black-footed ferrets live?

Black-footed ferrets once ranged throughout the North American Great Plains from southern Canada to northern Mexico, wherever prairie dog colonies thrived.

At one point, their numbers were so diminished that they were thought to be extinct, until a small population was discovered in 1981. The 18 animals were caught to establish a breeding colony from which all wild black-footed ferrets are now descended.

A black-footed ferret with a slender body, long tail and black and tan fur

Today, black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced to parts of their historic range, including locations in Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Utah. They have also been released into Canada and Mexico.

How do they protect themselves?

The prairie dog burrow systems where black-footed ferrets live offer shelter from predators. Ferrets also make use of sharp canines and a good sense of smell.

Do black-footed ferrets hibernate?

These ferrets don’t hibernate, but their activity does decrease substantially in the winter. In fact, they sometimes remain in the same underground burrow system for up to a week.

Stop by the Small Mammal House to see black-footed ferrets during your next visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo!

Ashley Goetz

Ashley Goetz is a web content writer at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, where she translates animal care research and conservation science into compelling stories. Ashley earned a bachelor's degree in public communication with a minor in marine biology from American University. When she isn’t at the Zoo, she spends her time traveling, crocheting and watching reruns of "Parks and Recreation" with her two cats.

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