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I like minks and I know that many people don't. They condemn minks as relentless predators that can kill in bunches, especially chickens. That minks are smaller than house cats and still manages to kill animals twice as big also gives people pause. Minks don't fill the bill of a noble predator. They are up-starts. But I like minks so if you are looking for commiseration for your dislike of them or a guide to how ward them off or kill them, this is not the web page for you.
I also don't know that much about them scientifically, though I did dissect one that I found dead on the ice of a beaver pond in March. So if you are a student doing a paper on minks, this is not the web page for you either. I can only share my observations of the animal who over years of hiking and kayaking I have come to consider my boon companion, that animal mostly likely to pop up even in the cold and deep snow, and dance through its daily rounds seemingly oblivious my being there.
Minks are considered the principal predator of muskrats. While waiting for the school bus one morning, my wife and son once saw a mink carry a dead muskrat into one of our woodpiles. I've seen minks attack muskrats several times, but the muskrats got away, and even came back to somewhat tentatively taunt the mink. My friend Jeff Hanna took the photo below while I was handling the camcorder.
I've also seen a muskrat attack and chase a mink away.
I am not sure what to make of this contest between these animals. But you can see why I can't flatter the assumptions of those that think minks are ruthless killers. Minks strike me as being rather happy go lucky. At times, it looks to me that a mink is trying to play with the muskrats. Muskrats, by the way, mostly eat plants. And the minks I see mostly catch fish.
I was out looking for otters. At first I thought I saw a small otter standing on the ice, but I soon noticed that the animal was much smaller than an otter, and displayed much less nervous energy. Then the mink ran with the fish, all the way back to its den in the beaver dam.
Otters are about four times bigger than minks, and are specially adapted for swimming and quite masterful in the water. Minks swim enough to get the fish they need, but not by swimming all around like a dolphin, which an otter can manage. I've frequently seen mink set themselves up on a rock or beaver lodge, keep a wary eye on the water, then dive and come right back out with a fish in its mouth, or a crayfish. In my Journal here is how I wrote about a mink catching a crayfish.
As I got near the exposed rocks on the shore of the south entrance to the bay, I saw something jump off a rock and then back up on it. As I paddled closer the mink was not disposed to flee
Then it dove into the water
and by the bubbles I could see it was swimming toward me, then it turned back and slipped back up on the rock with a crayfish in its mouth
It huffed a bit, I suppose more at me than the poor crayfish. Its jaws clamped down and broke the shell.
That taken care of, it jumped into the water and swam to the shore to enjoy its meal away from me.
I wish I could account for this happy-go-lucky attitude in minks. They belong to the same family, mustelids, as otters, fishers, and weasels. And I wouldn't call those animals happy-go-lucky. By size minks are about half the size of fishers and twice as big as weasels. In my experience, weasels are stealthier than minks. Weasels do hide and spring out and catch animals, usually bigger than they are. Fishers can climb trees and, from what I've seen, are much more physically imposing than minks, as you can see in this video of a fisher.
Fishers give tree climbers like squirrels and porcupines pause, but I bet neither has much to fear from a mink. (Once when I was kayaking along the shores of a rocky island, I followed a mink as it danced along the rocks. Then I saw a gray squirrel hopping along the shore going the opposite direction. The two met and both ran back the way they came as fast as they could. Here is an image of a mink that I took with my camcorder as it ran along those rocks on another day)
Although not in the same family as raccoons, minks have a similar style. Like raccoons they prowl the shores, and like raccoons they can dig into the mud and dirt, but only to a point. They are not as dogged as raccoons, or as dogged as canines for that matter. They are appealing to watch because they are graceful, because they dance, because they aren't afraid of you and dance right by you, even on the coldest of winter days when I think I am a damn fool for being out in the swamps.
Here's a video of what I mean:
Here's another video of a mink on the ice, but on a warmer day, for me. I don't think temperature makes any difference to a mink.
Since minks are usually so exciting to watch, tracking them can fire your imagination, especially on a cold winter morning after a snowfall. Most animals lay low in those conditions. Minks are the first out and about. When we think of an animal mastering the snow, we think of otters. I've tracked otters with delight for years and in the winter their tracks have taken me up many ridges and their slides down many slopes, but a mink's slide in the snow can be more breathtaking than most otter slides.
Once I saw a mink rather annoy an otter. The bigger animal was out on the ice around the beaver lodge it was staying in, looking intently at the steep snow covered bank of the pond. I looked over there and saw a mink darting up and sliding down the bank. The otter seemed unamused and kept watch until the mink disappeared into the snow where there were other places to den. My guess is that the mink coveted staying in the beaver lodge which was right next to the deepest channel of water running under the pond (deepest, but only about two feet deep,) and the otter wanted to make sure it didn't move in.
One day I saw the most magnificent slide arching down a long slope and a mink made it, a small bullet-like mink and not a weighty otter which made it all that more exciting to see:
A close look at the slide struck me as a pure image of incredible acceleration:
I confess that I have never seen another mink slide quite like this and the minks I watch usually patrol their territory more sedately. My guess is that the mink who made that slide was hurrying to find a mate. Late February, when there is less to eat and colder temperatures to survive, is when many animals turn their mind to sex. While I've been privy to the intimate affairs of some otters, muskrats and beavers. I've rarely seen two minks together, which by the way is a good rule to differentiate minks from otters. Otters often group together. I am not even sure how prolific minks are. I do know that they have a home range and defend it. Indeed, when I find a dead mink, I usually think another mink killed it. In the animal kingdom, you can be happy-go-lucky with other species, but not your own. But then again I've seen so few dead minks and, when I do, I am so struck by the beauty of the animal that forensics are soon forgotten.
With the animal brought to a stop, I appreciate the patch of delicate white fur under its chin.
I cut open the poor mink and think I found the soul of the animal -- the muscles in its back legs.
Yes, that cute little jaw above the white patch can stab and tear flesh, but those back leg muscles propel the little animal so that it can weave trails throughout its range. Forget about those videos above that show a mink skipping hither and yon. The video below shows a mink more intent as it tours its territory, but it still has the grace of a dancer and full command of both the shore and the water.
I've put more thought into trying to figure out the range of otters, beavers and muskrats. From what I've seen of minks, I'd say that their range is much smaller than the miles an otter can command (especially where I live among the Thousand Islands;) and much bigger than what beavers and muskrats command. For example a beaver family might boss a pond or three extending a quarter to a half mile of valley; two or three muskrat families will patrol their third of a big beaver pond. In my experience, a mink's range will at least encompass the territories of three beaver families, which means one mink might keep several muskrats families under inspection. By the way, in my experience beavers ignore minks and vice versa. Important as it is, I find trying to measure an animal's range tedious. So back to that leg muscle.
Otters strike me as having a complex combination of motors: webbed feet and a powerful rotating tail for swimming, and big hind legs for running and launching into a slide and front legs strong enough to pull the animal up steep cliffs.
A mink's tail probably serves as a rudder in the water, but little more, and, of course, helps with balance on the land. So it is not a motor. Mink dig more than otters and, I think, seek finer fare than what the gross scraping of an otter might dig up. So the front legs, while necessary for motoring, don't provide much power. That combination of powerful motors allows the otter to have a relatively big head evolved to catch big fish and eat them on the spot. The mink often caches what it catches allowing it to mind its manners as it eats at its leisure back in its den. So with its smaller head, the mink, I wager, is more streamlined, and more efficient in the underwater, though not as powerful and fast as the otter. Now to something I can illustrate. The powerful back legs and streamlined body allow the mink to tunnel through the snow.
That's not the best photo. I lifted it from my video, and the tunnel slants down hill suggesting that gravity as much as those leg muscles helped. Searching my files, I found another good photo of a mink tunnel, and the January 15, 2009, Journal entry describing the trail of the mink that made it.
Then I picked up a mink trail leaping toward the bank holes coming from the dam.
Nothing warms up a cold day like tracking a mink. Each leap in the snow looks so liberating, and then like that the trail disappears in a tunnel under the snow.
I back tracked the mink's trail to the dam
where I was surprised to see the trail circling around on the east side of the dam
and another mink trail circling around at the center of the dam,
where the mink left a poop as it turned around.
At the first sign of confusion like that, I assume two animals were chasing each other, and one marked its territory.
That was deep snow for a mink and the tracks make it easy to visualize the minks leaps over the snow and then, I guess when it got up enough speed, its tunneling under the snow. What fun! Because of its bounding gate, the impression a mink makes when you see one running, seldom matches the delicate print it sometimes leaves behind.
Tracks a mink leaves in a dusting of snow also show the power of the mink's back leg muscles.
In that photo it looks like the mink's leaps caused it tail to drag. When I see that I let my imagination run. Perhaps the mink just came out of the water of the pond and leaping high was its way of shaking the water off its fur. For me, the mink is the one animal whose tracks often tell a story. What it kills is often bigger than it is and you can see drag marks. Here is what I saw one afternoon after a morning snow
The short stride and the tail marks suggested to me that the mink was hopping along with something in its mouth. I followed the mink's trail to the margin of the pond where it had dug out a small hole into the snow and under the pond ice
Look closely and just outside the hole you can see a blood stain. The mink's penchant for bringing its kills back to its den helps make reading its tracks easier. At the beginning of the winter to 2010-11, a mink in one pond collected two frogs in front a hole, not sure why it left them there.
The mink's tracks across the pond to that hole looked a little heavy, like it was carrying something.
I wish I could tell you more about that mink, but I lost track of it. Two traits of the mink make it difficult to track them in the winter. They can effectively live under the ice of a beaver pond once the water drains out, and unlike otters, and coyotes for that matter, they are not religious about marking their territory with their scats. The water level of ponds and rivers often drops in the winter. Where I live, otters often hurry up the process by digging holes and trenches through beaver dams. So I frequently see mink tracks leading to holes and then what happens under the ice where the mink runs to pools of water under the ice, with plenty of air to breath is unknown to me. (I should do a study of how long otters, if they are around, will let minks share the under ice world, but I haven't. The mink started using that hole after the otters left.)
Mink scat, their poop, is a bit a twisted back goo, that sometimes reveals what the mink has been eating but usually doesn't.
The photo of the scat below was left by a mink who had been eating some scaly fish
Otters often leave a big mess around ponds and outside their holes in the ice in the winter, but not minks. However sometimes when the snow melts, I'll find an extensive collection of scats, which puzzles me, because I don't think of happy-go-lucky minks of being such home bodies, which shows how little I know.
But I'm eager to learn, I'll always follow a mink, that magical animal. And I'll leave you with another video of a mink running about on the pond ice
by Bob Arnebeck
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