After talking about two birds that are generally unmistakable, I wanted to switch gears this week and take a closer look at a mammal that seems to lead to more annual misidentifications than any other. The American mink (Neogale vison) is a medium-sized member of the Mustelidae family which also includes weasels, otters, fishers, ferrets, martens, and badgers. Historically, skunks were also lumped into this group, but recent studies into their genetics resulted in a reclassification into a different taxonomic family. Of the mustelids present in Ohio, long-tailed weasels are likely the most abundant, but their secretive, nocturnal habits lead to few sightings.
Mink, on the other hand, are just as widespread and, unlike their weasel kin, don’t seem to be averse to daytime activity. Though they are primarily nocturnal or crepuscular, I get frequent reports of them out during midday hours, and they are almost always spotted while traversing a streambank or lake shoreline in search of food with their characteristic loping gait. Mink also seem to have drawn the short end of the mustelid stick when it comes to awareness of vehicular traffic as their carcasses turn up on roadways more regularly than others in this group. If you happen to spot the remains of an animal with dark, chocolate-brown fur on the road, especially if it’s near a bridge, you can almost be certain it is a mink that didn’t look both ways.
The mink is perhaps best known due to its historical place in the luxury garment industry. The thick, soft fur was preferred for making designer jackets and coats and until the establishment of commercial mink farms, trappers could make considerable income by selling the pelts of wild caught mink. As public opinion and demand for natural fur products have shifted downward in the last half-century, mink populations have increased throughout their range as pressure from trapping and hunting has been much reduced.
As mink numbers continue to rise, conflicts between humans and this skillful predator are also becoming more prevalent. Mink are voracious carnivores whose preferred foods include frogs, crayfish, and rodents but they will also gladly raid a chicken coop for fresh poultry or visit a backyard water feature to nab someone’s prized koi. And though you might think a single chicken would be enough to satisfy the appetite of an animal that weighs only one or two pounds, mink are known to kill multiple prey at once and cache them for later meals.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, mink also tend to be the animal at the heart of many mustelid mistaken identities. Their similar shape and color to both river otters and long-tailed weasels lead to reports each year of river otter sightings near a residential pond and when I published an article requesting weasel sightings, nearly all of them I received turned out to be minks instead. Mink are also very similar in size to the domestic ferrets available in nearly every pet store, so it’s not unusual to hear stories about ferrets running loose in the neighborhood, when in reality it’s just a mink going about its business. For the record, there are no wild ferrets in Ohio, and the extremely rare, federally endangered, black-footed ferret is the only wild variety found in the United States.
Despite their potential to feast on your fish or hunger for your hens, mink are an important natural predator in Ohio and should be appreciated for the hundreds of rodents they consume throughout the year. If you would like to report a mink sighting, feel free to contact me or submit it on the Division of Wildlife’s wildlife sighting webpage.
Tommy Springer is the wildlife and education specialist for the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at 740-653-8154 or at Tommy.Springer@fairfieldswcd.org
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