“Water Weasels!”

Cute as a furry button, but feisty and aggressive as a hungry or perturbed bobcat, diminutive Minks, although seldom seen are quite prevalent in North Carolina. Every county has a mink presence, but they are so secretive, solitary and territorial that hardly anyone knows they’re there. They run everybody off, even other minks. So, there’s never a huge population in any one place. Minks need to be near waterways and wetlands, so Eastern North Carolina is perfect habitat for these commonly called “Water Weasels,” but they can be found in the mountains and Piedmont regions of our state, too. Our coastal minks run smaller than those in the western part of the state. It’s a very rare occasion, but an infant Mink was brought to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport after being found alone and in a Pamlico County resident’s driveway. After a full examination, a puncture wound was found that looked ‘talon-esque.’ One theory suggests he was grabbed by a nocturnal raptor, possibly a Great-Horned Owl, and miraculously, he wriggled free and fell to the ground. Initially, the tiny furry find in the gravel was thought to be an otter, probably because we expect to see otters in our area and often do. Our tiny Mink, who is known to be semi-aquatic, feeds on minnow-sized fish, turtles, snakes, small birds, crayfish, reptiles, crustaceans, insects, rabbits, mice and other small mammals. So, you may have guessed by now; the mink is a carnivore. Minks are often thought of as dainty looking but extremely vicious because of their capability to kill prey much larger than itself, and even though that may be way too much to eat all at one time, they are not wasteful. They take the leftovers to their den for munching later. The mink is a small mammal with a long, thin body and short, sturdy legs, a flattened head, small eyes and ears, and a pointed nose. Each foot has five toes with claws and slight webbing between each toe. The mink’s lustrous waterproof fur is generally chocolate brown to black, extremely attractive and often sports a white patch on the chin or chest. Long, furred tails are brown at the base tapering to black at the tip. The American male weighs about 2.2 pounds, and the American female weighs about 1.32 lb. Minks have excellent senses of vision, smell and hearing. They are mostly nocturnal but can be occasionally seen during the day. They are as fast if not faster than any Olympic swimmer and can also climb trees. Minks are very vocal, especially when threatened, and will growl, hiss, screech or sometimes purr when perceived as happy or content. Another method of communication is to discharge a strong, musky, foul scent from their anal glands. If they are taking a skunk’s lead, something tells this author that they are not happy when they do that! Prime locations in wetlands for mink include areas with irregular shorelines, dense emergent vegetation, availability of den sites and a variety of suitable food. Although mink will den just about anywhere, they prefer burrows made by other animals, usually muskrats or beavers. They may also choose dens in brush piles, log jams or cavities in the roots of trees. Mink move frequently and adopt temporary dens except when they are rearing young. Most minks are loners and typically come together only to breed. The breeding season occurs from late January through February. Females raise their first litter at one year of age. Minks fall into the category of over 100 mammal species in which the fertilized egg is not implanted in the womb for some time. In mink, this period of delayed implantation lasts 10-40 days and is followed by an active pregnancy of 28-30 days. One litter of 4-5 blind and hairless kits is produced each year. Kits are weaned at 6 to 10 weeks, though how long they stay with their mother depends on the species; American or European. American mink youngsters stay with their Moms longer, 6–10 months, while European kits, only 4 months. The offspring are sexually mature when one year old, and females produce litters after their first breeding season. Though they are not endangered and are common throughout their widespread range across the United States (except for Arizona and Hawaii where they are nonexistent), a mink’s lifestyle is so inaccessible, they have not been intensely studied. But we do know that minks live three to four years, with a maximum record of 10 years. Aside from humans, mink have few natural enemies, although they experience danger and some mortality from domestic dogs, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and owls. Minks need wetlands to survive, so wetlands availability is the primary influence on mink populations. Some biologists believe that mink numbers have declined though, largely because of the steady destruction of prime mink habitat in wetlands. As a predator, minks are near the top of the aquatic food chain, making them susceptible to contamination in the food chain. Elevated mercury concentrations have been found in mink kidneys. It has been suggested that mercury can cause sublethal effects on many physiological functions, such as reproduction, growth and behavior. These studies are stated as inconclusive however, so further studies are recommended to investigate if there is a strong link between presence of environmental contaminants in mink and mink populations. Biologists acknowledge that other factors affect mink populations more gravely, such as habitat loss due to increasing development along eastern shorelines which alters both mink activity and prey abundance. Most important to the future of the mink in North Carolina is the conservation of wetlands, for their future is only as promising as that of the wetlands. Swim on, Little Water Weasel! We were happy to be of service to you!

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All