(Mustela vison Schreber)
The weasel family is made up of the most diverse species of the carnivores and includes otters, badgers, fishers, skunks, weasels and minks. Individual species may be found in nearly every type of terrestrial habitat from below the ground to the treetops and in fresh and salt water environments. They exhibit intelligence, endurance, great strength and endurance which are needed in their pursuit of variable and uncertain food resources. Most mustelids have anal scent glands used for defense and marking territory. Minks have these glands, but unlike their cousin, the skunk, they cannot direct the spray toward a perceived threat.
Minks are semi- aquatic members of the weasel family that have an amphibious way of life. They not only swim well, but they are also able to climb well.
Small and slender with short legs and webbed feet, mink are well- adapted for a life spent in and near the water. Minks have a dense, soft, dark brown undercoat that is oily and waterproof and have long, glossy hairs overlaying this underfur. They are a dark brown overall and have a distinct white patch under the chin, and may also have small white patches on the underside. The tail is also dark brown with a black tip and is about one third of its entire length. Ears are relatively short and rounded. Adults are between 18 and 26 inches in total length and weigh between 1.1- 3 pounds.
Minks are versatile and solitary predators. They are carnivorous and eat a variety of small prey including fish, frogs, mussels, birds and bird eggs, mice, voles, insects and muskrats. They will eat turtles and snakes as opportunities arise. They often carry prey back to their dens to eat and are known to cache extra food.
Minks travel both on land and in the water, swimming both above the surface and underwater. They can swm underwater as deep as 16 feet. They also can climb trees, and one day I saw one being chased around a tree trunk by a red squrrel, a little pissant of the first order. I am unclear to this day whether the squirrel was turning the tables on its would- be predator, or if it just was bad timing by the mink in happening by.
A mink moves its residence often, and may not be easy to find even if the area it hunts in is still the same. Sometimes the best way to observe wildlife is to sit quietly for a while and see what happens by. It can be a rewarding experience and often yields unexpected encounters with other creatures that share the same territory. In the few places I have personally encountered mink, they were invariably on the hunt or else returning from a successful venture. Out of three seen with a catch, there were three different victims- a rather large frog, a perch, and a bird. I conduct what I refer to as “ stake- outs “ when I am out hiking around. I bring a lightweight 3-legged seat and sit in promising sites for a while, and while doing so in a dry area surrounding a wooded swamp one April, I heard the rustling of leaves as some creature hurried through. To my surprise, it was a mink carrying a huge frog, and it was completely unaware of my presence. It carried its prize into its den at the base of a two- trunked swamp maple. It came out a minute later, and as I was now upwind, it detected my presence and retreated to safety. I encountered this same mink many times over the next several years, usually in the late afternoon while it scampered on the banks of a pond deep in the woods.
Unless you know for certain minks live in a particular area, encounters are by chance rather than by design. Once winter at dusk during a snowstorm a mink came running across a frozen woodland pond and zipped into the only spot of open water, presumably to hunt for a fish. Unless I was there at precisely the right time, it would have been out of sight. Another time, one was running along a stream bank with an ovenbird hanging from its mouth with the ovenbird’s mate following and giving the alarm call. If not for the distress call of the surviving bird I would not have been drawn to investigate, and the mink would been in its den with its catch, out of sight.
If you are fortunate enough to see a mink, and it dives into a hole or under a rock for cover, wait quietly and it may venture out again. If you can position yourself downwind, it may come out, as its nose is a reliable instrument for detecting intruders even at a fair distance if you are upwind. Don’t be surprised if it growls, hisses, barks, or otherwise lets you know that your presence is not welcome. It is a lot like a river otter in this way.
Saunders, D. A. 1988. Adirondack Mammals. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 216pp.
NYSDEC- Bureau of Wildlife 625 Broadway Albany, New York 12233-4755 518-402-8924
Ct. Dept. of Environment and Energy and Environmental Protection www.ct.gov/deep