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Black-footed Ferret Cam FAQs

Black-footed ferret Potpie gave birth to six kits May 10, 2020. 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 Potpie and her kits? Read the FAQs below.

The mother, also called a dam, is 2-year-old Potpie. Potpie was born March 30, 2018, at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. This is her second litter.

The father, also called a sire, is Denver. Denver is also 2 years old and was born at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Ferret Center in Colorado May 17, 2018. He moved to SCBI in the fall of 2018 to be part of the breeding population.

The kits in this litter were conceived naturally, when Potpie and Denver mated in March. Gestation for black-footed ferrets is 42 days.

Dams are caring and sweet toward their kits, making only soft whimpering sounds at them. You can expect to see Potpie 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, Potpie 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.
Not counting these new kits, 32 black-footed ferrets live at SCBI, 13 males and 19 females.

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.