Reflections in Nature: The mink is a quick-tempered animal

Since retiring over 20 years ago, I have been asked many times if I miss being a wildlife officer and the time spent in the great outdoors.

I was very active in enforcing the game laws. My deputies and I made many arrests of game hogs, poachers and hunters making a profit from selling wildlife. Occasionally, I would come across a hunter that made an honest mistake and making this kind of arrest was hard, but it was part of my job.

I don’t miss the law enforcement part of the job, however I do miss being out in nature and observing wildlife in its natural habitat. Many of these encounters are forever etched in my mind.

Many years ago during the middle of March, I was checking on a beaver dam. Although patches of snow could still be seen in the woods, the ice was gone from the beaver dam. While walking across the dam, I noticed a mink bounding along the shore line, checking out all of the natural crevices and overhanging tree roots. Since the mink was coming my way, I stood very still but I was discovered.

The mink stood up on its hind legs and watched me as if in deep study. Then, all of a sudden, the mink dove into the water. The dive reminded me of the sailor’s dive, in which the diver keeps his arms by his side and enters the water head first. The mink crawled out onto the beaver dam, where it again studied me, and then dove into the water.

I kept watching until the mink appeared along the shore line. After reaching the bank, the mink shook the water from its pelt, stood up, and, with one more glance in my direction, loped away. Although I wished I had brought a camera, the encounter with the mink will be forever etched in my memory bank.

The mink’s scientific name is Mustela vision, with the Mustela coming from the Latin word mustela, which means a weasel, while vision is a French word that means the American mink. I read in the book “Latin Name Explained” that vision is sometimes used as an English name for this animal, however, I have never heard the term used.

Other members of the family are: weasels, martins, fishers, wolverines, badgers, skunks and otters.

The mink is a nervous and quick tempered animal, with an unfriendly disposition. This animal also has scent glands under the tail. Unlike the skunk, the mink cannot spray, but if the mink becomes excited, an odor can be detected. A quick, agile and fierce mink will wrap its body around a larger prey and proceed to kill with a bite to the back of the skull. A mink is an opportunistic feeder eating whatever is available. At times, a mink will kill more than it is able to eat, caching and eating the carcass later.

The mink has excellent eyesight, hearing and smell. The animal does have a peculiar walk, which consists of an arch-backed or a bounding lope, with a speed of six to eight miles per hour. While swimming, stiff hairs on the toes of the hind feet help propel the mink through the water.

Although the mink is equally at home on land, its home range is usually determined by water. Muskrat lodges make good winter homes for the mink, however, a mink will usually den near water in either a natural crevice or under tangled roots at the water’s edge. Also, a den could be in a stone pile, an abandoned woodchuck hole or hollow log.

The mink is basically a solitary animal except for during the mating season when it uses its powerful scent from anal glands to attract a mate. Males have larger territories than females and mate with several females, within their home range. March is the peak of the mating season.

In some books you can read that the male usually stays with the last female mated. Once mated the female has what is called delayed implantation, which means that the fertile eggs could take 15 to 50 days to attach themselves to the female’s uterine walls. After a 28-30 day true gestation period, the four to eight young are born in early May. They are born blind, hairless and only weigh about 0.2 ounces. However within two weeks, they are fully furred. In five weeks, their eyes are open, and approximately seven weeks later, the young foraging for food and learning how to hunt are with their mother.

By late summer, the family unit breaks up, and once again, the mink becomes a solitary animal.

I read in the book Wildlife Folklore that mink were important characters in many Native American tribes. Most of the tribes believed that the mink was some sort of a trickster, and its image was often carved on their totem poles.

The Cherokee told a story about why the mink’s fur is dark and has an odor. It seems the mink was a terrible thief, and in time, the other animals became tired of its antics. They built a large fire, into which they threw the mink.

After the mink began to smell, the animals decided that he had learned his lesson and pulled him from the fire. By then, the mink was charred black and smelled just like burnt meat. All trappers know that the mink’s pelt appears to be black when wet, and if the mink is agitated, one can detect the odor of burnt meat.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.


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