One of the things I like about winter is finding signs of animals in the snow. Some creatures, like the mink, are rarely seen but we can find out what they’ve been up to by following their tracks.
Mink are a medium-sized member of the weasel family, a group of carnivores that also includes weasels, otters, fishers, martins and wolverines. People don’t see them often but they are a common resident along lakes, rivers and streams throughout the region.
You can recognize a mink by its rich brown colour and long, sleek body. They grow to the size of a small cat and have silky, thick fur that has long been prized by the fur industry. Like all weasels, mink have a bounding gate and leave pairs of tracks in the mud or snow.
All members of the weasel family have glands at the base of the tail that produce a strong scent and mink are the smelliest of the bunch. They use the scent to mark their territories and as a defence when threatened. Mink can’t aim the spray like a skunk can but some people think that they smell worse than their stripped cousins.
Mink are active and proficient hunters. They are mainly nocturnal but can sometimes be spotted during the day as they zigzag their way through the undergrowth searching for prey. Mink are particularly fond of muskrats but they also eat other small mammals, waterfowl and their eggs, frogs, snakes and invertebrates. Mink are also excellent swimmers and regularly dive for fish.
When they aren’t out hunting, mink take shelter in dens that are usually located near water. They sometimes dig their own dens but most often take over muskrat houses and other burrows after they have dined on the inhabitants. The animals scatter dens throughout their territory to use both for sleeping and caching extra food.
Mink live solitary lives with males and females only meeting up to mate. Mating takes place during the winter but the females, like all weasel mothers, can delay pregnancy so that the young are born in the spring when food is plentiful.
The four or five pups are born blind and helpless but they grow quickly. The youngsters open their eyes by four weeks of age and weaning starts about five weeks. After another two or three weeks learning from their mother, they can hunt on their own, however, they will stay on mom’s territory until fall.
When we hear the word mink most people think of coats but the famous fur also belongs to a fascinating animal. Even in the dead of winter, they are busy hunting and fishing along our lakes and streams.