I'm Marty Stouffer. Here's a quiz for you. Which animal is ferocious as a Weasel, graceful as an Otter, and, when upset, smelly as any Skunk? Give up? The answer the American Mink: more commonly thought of as a world class symbol of luxury.
Its glistening pelt, in the form of mink coats, has made it famous. Yet most people know very little about its habits in the wild.
To see this semi aquatic hunter we travel to Minnesota, where the profusion of lakes and streams affords it an ideal habitat. Discover with me how much more there is than, just a fur coat to the "MINNESOTA MINK".
TRANSITION TO TITLE / TIME-LAPSE SUMMER TO WINTER
Minnesota has a rich diversity of human cultures, wildlife and landscapes. Adding to the diversity are its dramatic seasonal changes.
With the arrival of Winter, many animals that live here during the Summer migrate south to more gentle climates.
Among those that stay are members of the Weasel family. Animals whose thick fur keeps them warm through the Winter the Pine Marten, Fisher, Ermine, Otter and Mink like this adult male.
COYOTE HUNTING MINK
Mink share this frozen wilderness with the adaptable Coyote.
Using its keen sense of smell, finding food is a full-time job for the Coyote. Mink are not normally included in the Coyote's diet. But with a hungry predator nearby, a Mink is wary enough to try to take cover.
With piercing teeth and claws, the Mink is easily capable of fending off a predator four times its size.
MINK COURTING AND MATING
In Minnesota, the mating season for Mink begins in late February. For three weeks, they abandon their solitary ways to seek prospective mates.
This rutting male may have traveled fifteen miles in search of a receptive female. Members of each sex mate with two or more different partners.
It's interesting that this promiscuous behavior promotes survival of the fittest.
Because she mated with several males, the female's offspring will have different fathers. Studies show that the last mating produces most of the kits within a litter.
Males still mating at the end of the season have most likely traveled the farthest and fought off the most rivals. So the strongest, most aggressive males will produce more offspring.
Hardly a romantic interlude, Mink courtship consists of furious fighting. If the female is at the peak of her heat, she will copulate but not without a struggle.
Following conception, the fertilized eggs lie dormant inside the female. After about six weeks, they become implanted in the uterine wall and begin to develop.
This "delayed implantation" is a great advantage in the North since it usually delays birth until the arrival of Spring, a time when more prey will be available.
TRANSITION TO SPRING
The blanket of white melts into a cascade of blue. The runoff pours into Lake Superior the largest body of fresh water in the world.
It's no wonder native Indians named this land "Minnesota," which means land of water, blue as the sky."
In these Northern Wetlands, mosquitoes and moss both thrive and so do Mink.
Yet Mink are also surprisingly abundant throughout the rest of North America from the wind swept Arctic tundra to the steamy swamps of Florida. Only in the desert southwest, where there are few waterways for the Mink to prowl, are they absent.
The Mink occupies an ecological niche between that of its cousins, the River Otter and the Weasel.
The Otter is one of the larger members of the Weasel family. It spends most of its time in the water hunting for fish and other aquatic creatures.
With webbed feet and a thick layer of fat, the otter is more at home underwater than above.
Mice and other small mammals are hunted by the land loving weasel. Lightning swift, with a long, nimble body the Weasel is expert at catching prey on solid ground.
MINK CATCHING AND EATING CRAYFISH
But the semi aquatic Mink, midway in size between the Otter and the Weasel, takes advantage of both sides of the shore. Its home range may stretch a mile or two along a waterway, yet it seldom travels more than a few yards from the shoreline.
A Mink marks its home range with a strong scent which smells a lot like a skunk. It does this primarily to keep other Mink away from its hunting ground. But the foul musk is also used to discourage predators.
Mink are normally seen combing the shallows for frogs, salamanders, and crayfish. But, on occasion, they do venture into the water after fish, ducks and muskrats or they go inland to hunt mice and rabbits.
Although they're primarily meat-eaters, Mink feed on everything from birds to berries. Perhaps their un-specialized diet is one reason why Mink , unlike most fur bearers, are so easily raised on ranches.
Since the Civil War, Mink have been bred in captivity. Today, for every Mink trapped in the wild, five are supplied by fur farms. Because of this, furriers are able to meet the demand for Mink coats, while Mink remain abundant throughout most of their native range.
During the lengthening days of Spring, a females searches ravenously for food before she gives birth.
A lighter colored male has also come to this riverbank to try his luck fishing.
Like Otters, Mink are fond of fish. Unlike Otters, their vision is not well adapted for hunting underwater. The fish are often found in the shallows where a Mink hunts.
The intruder, unsuccessful at his own fishing, tries to take the catch away from the female.
FEMALE DEFENDS CATCH FROM MALE
Even with Mink , there's no such thing as a free lunch. The female returns to her hard earned meal, while the male heads downstream.
MINK DEN / BABIES
The young are born in April or May, usually in a hollow log, an abandoned Muskrat lodge, or a den dug into a stream bank.
Mink can have up to eight kids, but as with this female, they average about four per litter. The babies are born with a padding of thick skin on the back of their necks. It provides protection from the mother's sharp teeth when she picks them up.
The newborn kids are hairless and their eyes are sealed shut. At this stage, they bear little resemblance to their alert, fur covered parents.
The nursing female leaves to hunt along the river.
MAN CANOEING / FISHING
The abundance of fresh water in Minnesota is vital to animals which require Wetland habitat.
And it s equally important to the people who live here. Minnesota's fifteen thousand lakes offer unsurpassed canoeing. And, of course, fly fishing for rainbow trout is another favorite activity.
Like many wild animals, Mink have learned that where there are people, there is usually food.
MINK ATTEMPTS STEALING FISH FROM FISHERMAN
Unaware that a wily Mink is nearby, the fisherman leaves his creel unguarded. If the female has her heart set on fresh fish, she'll have to catch her own.
However, Mink are opportunistic and these young Canada geese do not go unnoticed.
One of these goslings would make a great meal for the nursing mother Mink . But since the young geese stay close by their protective parents, the Mink leaves to satisfy her hunger elsewhere.
TRANSITION BACK TO DEN AND BABIES
As Summer arrives, the Minnesota woodlands become filled with small creatures for the Mink to hunt. The den entrance is now partly obscured by a lush undergrowth of grass, trilliums and willows.
The three week old babies have grown rapidly on their diet of rich milk and will soon begin feeding on the kills their mother brings back to the den. They're now covered with a thick, wavy underfur. But they still lack the long, silky guard hairs of their parent's coat.
The guard hairs of a Mink , when struck by sunlight, are almost prismatic, reflecting tints of red, green, and blue.
In September, both the mother and her grown young will shed their light brown summer coats and replace them with thick, dark winter coats.
Since Mink are solitary animals, this family will separate by Autumn. But for now, the bond between a mother Mink and her young is as powerful as any on Earth.
BABIES LEAVING DEN / PLAYING
Summer is a time for exploration and play. With wide open eyes and wobbly legs, the month old kids have started to venture outside the den.
The mother Mink must now spend even more time hunting to satisfy her youngsters' newly acquired taste for meat.
This warm sunshine is probably a welcome sensation after the dampness of the den.
Unfortunately this outside world offers much less protection from danger. This nearby Black Bear also seems to enjoy basking in the dappled sunlight.
The mother returns to check on her litter. Her movement rouses the Bear's curiosity.
Unaware of the approaching Bear, the kids continue to explore outside the den. Learning to flee from predators is the first and most important lesson for all wild babies.
The mother Mink teaches her young the hard way, by literally dragging them into the den. Luckily for the Mink family, the Bear is more curious than hungry.
Mink often hoard scraps from past kills bones, feathers, fur and pieces of hide for bedding material or for future meals. The bear, as well as the flies, were probably attracted to the den by the smell.
Black Bears also like to travel along riverbanks and often cross paths with Mink . But the Mink 's quickness and feisty disposition usually keep it out of trouble.
CLOSE-UP OF MINK IN DEN
The Mink are safe and snug in their sheltered hideaway, but soon the youngsters will spend more time away from the den, hunting with their mother.
Ten miles upstream from Lake Superior, this tributary provides an ideal nursery for insect larvae and fish eggs, which are fed upon by frogs.
In turn, these amphibians are consumed by the Mink . At two months of age, the youngsters already display a Weasel like preoccupation with hunting.
MINK BABIES FORAGING AND LEARNING TO SWIM
The curious youngsters stay close by their mother and continue to learn from her the finer points of catching prey. Yet it looks like their teacher could use a few lessons herself.
As her offspring poke among the rocks, the female interrupts their foraging for a swimming session. At first the juvenile Mink seem bewildered by their mother's strange behavior. But spurred by a natural instinct to swim, they take the plunge.
With partially webbed feet, the young Mink find it easy to paddle against the gentle current of the stream.
A close relative, the now extinct Sea Mink, was completely adapted for an aquatic way of life. These saltwater Mink once frolicked in the coastal waves off New England, but mysteriously disappeared around the turn of the century.
In several weeks, these youngsters will leave the family group and, with the skills learned from their mother, seek a life on their own. Though the survival of modern Mink is certainly hampered by water pollution and the loss of Wetland habitat, their future seems secure.
It's been called a "weasel in a fur coat" for raiding hen houses. Yet the Mink is actually helpful in controlling the number of rodents and insects. And, of course, trappers and fur ranchers consider it a valuable asset.
As for its place in Nature, the Mink fills a specific niche between land and water, making the best of both worlds. Because of this versatility, the future looks bright for the "MINNESOTA MINK".
I'm Marty Stouffer. Until next time, enjoy our WILD AMERICA.