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Minks and Otters

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As promised, we will continue up the family tree of the toughest family on the block, the Mustelids. This week we will be discussing the “middle “children of the family. But make no mistake, they are just as tough, fearless, and bloodthirsty as their siblings. Next time we will discuss the big boys, the Martens, Fishers, and Wolverines. Now let me introduce brother Mink.

Minks are at home on land or in the water and are reasonablygood climbers. Mink are generally shy and avoid humans, but at times, exhibit boldness when their curiosity is triggered. Male mink can reach 30 inches in length, and weigh over 3 pounds. They usually live on stream banks in an old muskrat den where the occupant was evicted and often eaten by the mink. The male mink has several dens in his territory to  rest or store food. Muskrats are number are the number one menu item, but frogs, crayfish, small fish, and water birds can also be on the menu. Like all members of the family, they are opportunistic hunters and will kill anything they can catch. Mink are capable at trailing or stalking their prey. Mainly a nocturnal hunter, the mink is an excellent swimmer so any animal who thinks jumping into the water to escape is in for a surprise. If pickings are slim in the stream, a mole, vole, or mouse in the adjacent meadow will do just fine. Territories can extend 15-25 miles on either side of the stream bank. Just like its smaller siblings, mink are wanton killers. Mink don’t play well with others, except during the breeding season, avoidance and/or fighting between mink is common. Mink are even known to prey on other minks. Also just like their smaller siblings, mink will store food for a rainy day. Mink fur is short and dense. Mink were once considered the top fur-bearring animal and were extensively hunted and trapped until the advent of the mink farm which subsequently supplied the fashion needs of commercial furriers and helped save the native populations in many areas.  Shades of color vary somewhat according to region, and individuals. Most shades are chocolate to almost black. Patches of white fur are typical on the chins of most mink.

Minks can be found in most of the United States and Canada except for Hawaii, Arizona, southern California, southern and central Utah, southern New Mexico and western Texas. This is mainly due to a lack of suitable aquatic habitat for them to establish their extensive territories.  One male can have several females within his territory. Mating season runs January through April. After mating, the male will abandon the female and leaves her the responsibility of raising the young kits. The female will have a litter of three to six young in a fur-lined nest. The babies are weaned when they are five to six weeks old. The babies will stay with their mother until the fall. Tracking mink can be a challenge. They have five toes but only four show up in the mud or snow. They have a bounding gait with their back paws almost side by side to the front paw track.

As anti-social as its brother, the mink, brother river otter is the clown of the family, not to mention the stylish one as well.  This clown of the river is commonly sliding down the riverbank, playing tag in the water, or grooming himself on the riverbank. This activity usually occurs with the loosely knit” family group”. Grooming and this playfulness consume a vast amount of the otter’s day. Much larger than the mink, male otters can reach 20-25 lbs, and are a little over three feet in length. They are the true swimmers of the family with a powerfully streamlined body, small ears, webbed feet, and a stout tail. This shape allows them to move through the water with great agility and speed. The ears and nostrils are valvular and can be closed underwater. Generally, brown in color, their fur is made of coarse guard hairs overlaying a short, dense, oily underfur. Although carnivores, they are not the wanton killers like their smaller relations, the weasels and mink. Nocturnal hunters, they eat fish, amphibians, reptiles, and aquatic invertebrates. Occasionally, river otters may kill and eat birds and mammals, especially young beavers, and muskrats. Fish and crayfish make up a substantial part of the diet. Bullheads, suckers, and other species of slow-moving rough fish rather than game fish represent the majority of the fish in the diet. Their agility in the water allows them to overtake or outmaneuver fish underwater, catch them, and carry them to the shore, or the surface of the ice before eating them. Females usually look for dens, old ground hog holes, close to the river where they will raise 2-3 young pups. Breeding occurs in the winter and young are born the following fall.  The male usually stays in the general vicinity of the den, but the female does not let him join the group until the young are old enough to travel. During the fourth month, the pups are forced to learn to swim. The family group then will hunt over a 10-mile territory of the river.

Due to water pollution and extensive hunting pressure, the river otters range has greatly diminished. Along with the beaver, the river otter was relished by the Europeans for their fur. Otter pelts were commonly traded by the native Indians.  Historically ranging in most of North America, it now is only found in pockets where there has been an effort to reintroduce the population. Fortunately, in Ohio they are making a nice comeback and can be found in many of the watersheds of Northeast Ohio.