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Where Do Ferrets Live in the Wild?

Kristin Hitchcock

There are many different species of ferrets. They are found in many different countries around the world, including the United States.

European ferrets are typically the kind of ferret that most people think of. As their name suggests, they are native to Europe. Many are still found in the wild there today. They are different from the current domestic ferret, though domestic ferrets were once imported from Europe.

Black-footed ferrets are found natively in the United States. However, this species is highly endangered. They declined rapidly over the 20th century due to decreased natural food and the sylvatic plague.

This species was declared extinct in 1979, but a wild population was discovered in 1981. Many different breeding programs are going on today that seek to re-establish the species. Currently, there are about 18 populations, though only four of those are self-sustaining.divider-ferret

Where Do Ferrets Live in the U.S.?

Ferret Closeup
Image Credit: verticallimit, Pixabay

The black-footed ferret once lived across the North American Great Plains. About 90% of their diet is made up of prairie dogs. Therefore, their population was focused on where prairie dogs could be found.

Sadly, they are not nearly as widespread as they once were. Prairie dogs have become more uncommon, leading to a decrease in the ferret population.  The sylvatic plague heavily affected their populations too.

Today, most of their wild groups have been reintroduced through careful breeding. They currently live in the wild in a few areas of Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona. However, their range is much smaller than it once was.

Where Is a Ferret’s Natural Habitat?

Most ferret species live in plains areas. Exactly how they live depends on the species, though. For instance, the black-footed ferret lives in tunnels dug by other animals, such as prairie dogs. They are not good diggers themselves, so they rely on tunnels dug by other animals. Usually, they prey on the animal and then live in their tunnels.

This isn’t true for all species, though. Ferrets around the world live everywhere, from mountains to deserts and forests. It mainly depends on the particular species of ferret.

ferret grass
Image Credit: katya-guseva0, Pixabay

Do Ferrets Exist in the Wild?

Yes, there are species of ferrets that exist in the wild. There are currently 20 different species around the world.

These are not the same as your domesticated ferret, though. All species have different habitat preferences and food sources. For instance, the black-footed ferret only eats prairie dogs.

That said, the current domestic species of ferret is entirely different from all wild species. You will not find a wild ferret that matches the domestic ferret that most people are familiar with. The domestication of the ferret occurred about 2,500 years ago. No one knows precisely where the first domestic ferret came from.

Some people claim that ferrets initially become domesticated in Egypt. However, there is no evidence for this. Currently, no remains of a ferret nor hieroglyphs for one have been found. There are also no wild ferrets currently in the area.

The Romans did use ferrets for hunting, so they were at least domesticated by that time.

Today, domestic ferrets don’t usually occur in the wild. However, they are an invasive species in some areas where there is no competition for similarly sized prey animals. For instance, there are established groups on the Shetland Islands and in New Zealand. In many cases, these ferrets intermingle with similar species and become hybrids.

Ferrets were purposefully introduced into New Zealand to control the rabbit population, another invasive species. They were mated with European polecats to produce a species that could survive best in the wild.

Eventually, these ferrets began preying on native species. They are now considered invasive themselves.

Ferrets are banned in a few countries for this reason. They tend to be quite good at setting up wild colonies in places that they don’t belong.

In other words, domesticated ferrets do not usually exist in the wild. They have evolved as their species lived over the last 2,500 years next to people. They only exist in areas where they have been introduced or where escaped pets have managed to survive. Other species of ferrets do exist in the wild, though.

Ferret in the wild
Image Credit: MichaelSehlmeyer, Pixabay

Are There Wild Ferrets in North America?

Yes, the black-footed ferret is native to the Great Plains of North America. This species is endangered, though. They were once thought to be extinct, but a population of about 100 individuals was found in Wyoming.

Since then, the breed has been a part of a few breeding programs. Individuals from these programs were released into several areas throughout the west, where prairie dog populations were large enough to support them.

Today, their range is still tiny. They have been slowly reintroduced into some parts of their natural habitat. However, they are only standard in tiny areas. You aren’t likely to see one in the wild due to their rarity. They are one of the most endangered mammals in North America.

What Do Wild Ferrets Eat?

Ferret in the field
Image Credit: christels, Pixabay

It depends on the species. The domesticated ferret typically only exists in captivity, so they don’t have a “wild” diet. However, in areas where they manage to survive, they usually prey on whatever appropriately sized prey they can find. Rabbits are a standard option, but birds and similar animals are also quite common.

Other species of ferret eat different prey items depending on where they are located. The black-footed ferret eats almost only prairie dogs, for instance. Its population has suffered because there are no longer as many prairie dogs around to support them.

The European ferret eats different foods depending on where they are. They have a rather extensive range that intersects many different habitats. Therefore, their diet is bound to change depending on what is available.

Usually, they eat various mouse-like rodents and the occasional amphibians and birds. In wetter areas, the water vole is a common prey item, and amphibians may make up more of their diet. During the winter months, they tend to prey on birds more often, as other animals can be challenging to find. Quail, grouse, and pigeons are common. Some are even known to prey on domesticated chickens.

The ferret is capable of killing much larger prey than the movies. That’s why they are capable of taking down rabbits, though they are smaller. Some are even known to take down geese!

No matter the species, most ferrets are largely opportunistic hunters. They don’t precisely hunt for anything in particular but will eat anything that becomes available. There are only a few instances where they seek out certain prey, such as eels during times of frost. They are intelligent creatures, so many will remember where they have previously found certain prey items and may return to that location to find more.

The polecat will cache their food during times of abundance. This occurs most often in the spring, when frogs and other amphibians suddenly become abundant. They usually keep them buried in their caves and may eat them later.

Sometimes, the polecat will not outright kill an animal. It isn’t uncommon for them to paralyze frogs and keep them in their burrows for later consumption. Since they aren’t technically dead, they last a bit longer.divider-ferret

Final Thoughts

Many ferret species exist in the wild. This category of species exists over much of the world. There is even a species that is native to the United States, though they are sporadically located.

However, the domesticated species of ferret does not exist in the wild. The ferret was domesticated a long time ago. They evolved next to people over at least the last 2,000 years. Therefore, they are their own species, though they are closely related to the European ferret.

You will not usually find any wild ferrets that belong to this domesticated species. In some places, ferrets were either introduced or escaped as pets and set up colonies. New Zealand is one of the most prominent examples of this.

Ferrets were introduced in New Zealand to control the rabbit population, which is an invasive species. Today, ferrets are still around, though they are eating far more than just the rabbits.


Featured Image Credit: MichaelSehlmeyer, Pixabay

Kristin Hitchcock

Kristin is passionate about helping pet parents create a fulfilling life with their pets by informing them on the latest scientific research and helping them choose the best products for their pets. She currently resides in Tennessee with four dogs, three cats, two fish, and a lizard, though she has dreams of owning chickens one-day!