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Black-footed Ferret Cam FAQs

Black-footed ferret mom Hickory gave birth to a litter of kits on May 27, 2023. Tune in to the Black-footed Ferret Cam streaming live from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, for all the action. Have a question about Hickory and her kits? Read the FAQs below.

Like many babies, black-footed ferrets kits mostly spend the first few weeks of their lives resting. When they grow a little older, they will spend more time playing and exploring.

As a species, black-footed ferrets are nocturnal, so the kits may be more active at night or early in the morning.

At birth, they only make soft squeak noises. As they grow, their repertoire expands from soft squeaks to more normal adult ferret noises of hisses, chatter-barks and playful chortles.

Kit Squeaks:

Adult Chatter-barks:

Black-footed ferrets eat rats and other small rodents. You may see Hickory or her kits enjoying a rat meal on the webcam! It's easy to confuse these with a lame or dead kit. However, all the kits are healthy and growing well.

You may spot carnivore keepers on camera, as they clean out the den box and drop off food for the ferret family. Keepers will also occasionally remove items for cleaning.

The mother, also called a dam, is 1-year-old Hickory. Hickory was born June 14, 2022, at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. This is her first litter.

The father, also called a sire, is Talo. Talo is 2 years old and was born at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado on June 17, 2021. Talo has already sired a litter of 7 kits earlier this year, to female Stinkpot.

The kits in this litter were conceived naturally when Hickory and Talo mated in April. Gestation for black-footed ferrets is 42 days.

As of May 31, 2023, a total of 1181 kits have been born at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute since the black-footed ferret breeding program began in 1989.

Dams are caring and sweet toward their kits, making only soft whimpering sounds at them. You can expect to see Hickory let the kits nurse frequently, groom them regularly and curl up with them to keep them warm. If they venture too far away, she will move them around by picking them up in her mouth at the scruff of the neck.

Dams are also very protective of their kits. This is understandable since they are the kits' sole source of food, warmth and safety. When defending kits, dams will often hiss and chatter-bark at possible threats. 

As the kits get older, Hickory will bring them food and fine-tune their hunting skills.

Initially, kits are very tiny, weighing only 5-9 grams. Their eyes and ear flaps are closed, they are covered in thin white hair,and they are overall very helpless. Kits grow very quickly though. Their dark markings appear at about 3 weeks of age, and young kits begin to open their eyes about 35 days after birth.

Kits will frequently explore around the den box and crawl all over their mom. At birth, they only make soft squeak noises. As they grow, their repertoire expands from soft squeaks to more normal adult ferret noises of hisses, chatter-barks and playful chortles.

The kits will frequently play-fight, pounce and dance at each other, as well as with mom. It is normal and can be quite cute to watch.

For the first several days, keepers will not disturb the family. They will place fresh food and water at the nest box’s opening, but will not open the box. A few days after birth, they start daily cleaning of the nest box. This is accomplished by offering the mother a fresh, clean nest box, which she will naturally go to investigate. When she does this, keepers will confine her to the new box for a brief period of time before allowing her to move the kits into the new box. This brief confinement allows keeper staff to safely check on the kits with minimal disturbance to the mom.

At the initial box check, the kits will be counted and receive a quick once-over before mom is reintroduced and allowed to move the kits. Once she has moved all her kits, the old box is removed and cleaned. When the kits are 10 days old, keepers will determine their genders and check their weights to make sure they are an appropriate size. They will continue to weigh the kits periodically to monitor their growth.

Once the kits open their eyes, keepers reduce the time they spend handling the kits. Because many of these kits will be reintroduced to the wild, keepers minimize contact with the kits to prevent them from becoming too familiar with, and thus not scared of, humans.

Keepers will open the nest box to offer the kits meat when they are 21 days old. The kits may try the meat but usually will not consistently eat meat until they are 30-35 days old. At 50 days old, keepers only handle the kits for medical reasons, such as vaccinations, exams and micro-chipping. Once keepers observe the kits venturing out of the box frequently, they will offer them food outside of the nest box.

When the kits are about 40 days old they will start to venture out of the den box. At first, they do so infrequently and for very short periods of time. Oftentimes, as the kits learn how to get in and out of the box, mom will have to “rescue” them by grabbing the scruff of their necks and pulling them back into the safety of the nest box.

Usually by 50 days old, the kits start to venture out into their enclosure more frequently. The enclosure is a lot larger than the next box, offering plenty of room to run, play, dig and investigate once the kits become a little braver.

Probably not. These kits are part of a reintroduction program. Keepers hope to one day set them free in the wild. The less contact they have with people, the less likely they are to approach a human in the wild.

Including these new kits, approximately 65 black-footed ferrets live at SCBI. 

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s legacy of conservation work extends beyond the public Zoo in Washington, D.C., to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Scientists at SCBI study and breed more than 20 species, including some that were once extinct in the wild, such as black-footed ferrets and scimitar-horned oryx.

Animals thrive in specialized barns and building complexes spread over more than 1,000 acres. The sprawling environment allows for unique studies that contribute to the survival of threatened, difficult-to-breed species with distinct needs, especially those requiring large areas, natural group sizes and minimal public disturbance.

Black-footed ferrets once ranged across the western plains but were thought to be extinct until a small colony was discovered Sept. 26, 1981, near Meeteetse, Wyoming. All black-footed ferrets today — in human care and in the wild — are descendants of the 18 individuals brought into human care by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to prevent the species from going extinct.

Currently, there are approximately 280 black-footed ferrets at captive breeding facilities, including at NZCBI which has participated in the cooperative breeding program since 1988. Smithsonian scientists have helped increase the genetic diversity in the black-footed ferret population using artificial insemination and cryopreserving sperm. As of 2022, the USFWS breeding and reintroduction program has resulted in more than 10,900 black-footed ferret kits births across six zoos and at USFWS National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center and more than 4,500 of those animals being reintroduced into the wild. These recovery efforts are managed by the USFWS and partners in multiple states.