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American Mink at the Sanctuary


Written by Michael Gambino, Curator

A few years back, a visitor came into the nature center and excitedly blurted out, “I think I just saw a mink!” Now sometimes people make mistakes when they see a glimpse of an animal that could be something else. “Really?”, I said, “What did it look like?” The vague description I got from the man made me secretly doubt that what he saw was a mink. “That would be interesting, since we have no species records of mink being seen here in the sanctuary before. Are you sure it wasn’t a woodchuck? We have plenty of young woodchucks around. . .” The man was adamant that it was not a woodchuck. I went out to the location where the alleged mink was sighted, but I could not find any tracks in the grasses and reeds.

A year later, another person came to my office to report seeing a mink. Again? Now I was pretty sure that it could be a mink, since the body shape and behavior of this member of the weasel family (Mustelidae) is distinct, and two sightings a year apart meant that if true, the animal might be making a living here at the sanctuary. After all, there are plenty of small rodents, rabbits, birds, fish, and crabs for a mink to eat.

Like all weasels, the American Mink has a long slender body and neck, with short legs, dark, chocolate-brown fur, and a six- to eight-inch bushy tail. They are great swimmers, and this latest report placed the animal in the salt marsh area by the lake. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of this famously elusive creature, but it was not to be – yet.

Another year passed, then, on a cold February afternoon, I discovered a dead mink on the trail near the nature center. Finally confirmed, but here it was before me, dead – the lost prey of a Great Horned Owl that perhaps was scared off for some reason, leaving the mink behind (close observation revealed the characteristic puncture marks of an owl‘s talons – two toes forward, two toes to the rear on each foot). Now I hoped that just maybe this mink was not alone here, and that maybe it had a mate or a sibling still out there hunting in the snow-covered landscape.

Typically, mink are found in sparsely populated rural areas where streams and freshwater ponds are present. They are also found in both freshwater and saltwater marshes and coastlines. Rye, however, is decidedly NOT a sparsely populated area. But at the sanctuary we have several of the habitats listed as favorable to mink.

The really exciting moment came one day the following year when a mink made an appearance right next to the nature center in the small meadow area by our pond. It sprinted from one area to the next, sticking close to the dense grasses and vegetation. At last we could confirm there was more than one mink here at the sanctuary, since the discovery of the dead one.

It ran across the road  into the large field where Christian and I had it cornered in patch of tall grass only a few feet wide. We waited for it to emerge. And we waited. We did not take our attention away from this island of grass and after 10 minutes, I noticed it had somehow gotten past us to the neighboring island of tall grass! Again we watched for a long time until I saw the mink stick its nose out into the open. Just the nose. A minute or two later, the face slowly emerged . . . then the head. I managed to snap a few quick photos, but it saw me and began to SLOWLY retract its head, face and nose back into the grass like a shadow. The mink’s reputation for being incredibly stealthy and elusive was apparent in it’s movement and flow across the varied landscape. Since that sighting there have been an increasing number of sightings throughout the sanctuary, and photographers have taken some photos of a mink swimming in the lake. So far though we have only seen one individual at a time, so we are still not sure of the size of the population here. Mink are generally solitary animals. Only during the late-winter season do males and female associate with each other. Their dens are usually old muskrat burrows in the banks of ponds, lakes, and streams. They will also use a tangle of tree roots or brush piles, or a pile of rocks. Mink “kits” are born between April and June, usually 4 kits per litter, but the number can vary up to 8 kits. Females develop their full adult weight and size by autumn.

The fact that mink have moved into the sanctuary is likely because the habitats are abundant with mink food: fish, crabs, birds, and small mammals such as mice, voles, chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels, but they aren’t necessarily here all the time. Males have a territory of up to 1,900 acres, though with good habitat and food supply, mink will maintain a smaller circuit. Keep your eyes open this winter and look for mink tracks in snow. Their track pattern is similar to that of all weasels – a loping gait and double-prints or paired tracks. If you do happen to see a mink, please inform the nature center staff so we can add the sighting to our records.