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Minks, otters, skunks, weasels, fishers, and martens

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

It is a favorite to watch mink and otters in what appears to be fun-filled lives. Like all animals, they need to meet the needs of finding food, water, shelter, and living space. The more time we spend outdoors in wild places, the better the opportunity to encounter these sleek active animals. Mink seldom stray far from streams or lake edges. They use other animal burrows or hollow logs for dens. 

Mink are generally secretive and stay out of view among dense wetland vegetation near water’s edge. I observed one investigating a shoreline in search of food. It was looking for aquatic life. They are in the Mustelidae weasel family that includes otters, weasels, skunks, fishers, and pine martins. They are predators that feed almost entirely on animal matter. 

The mink diet is varied. Bird eggs, frogs, and fish are frequent food. They capture live animals such as birds, chipmunks, mice, amphibians, snakes, worms, crayfish, and insects. Larger prey like ducks, squirrels, and rabbits are a jackpot feast. They will take leftovers to their den for later eating.  

The mink searching the shoreline approached a Common Loon sitting on her nest. We wondered if it would kill the loon or if the loon would successfully protect its nest. Mink kill prey by biting it behind the head on the neck. Before the mink got close enough to find the loon nest, it diverted into the forest. We did not see the drama play out as life or death for the loon family. Though it would have been interesting, I was happy for the loon.

American river otters. 
Photo by Dmitry Azovtsev. http://www.daphoto.info

Otters are more elusive and when seen, they are usually swimming in rivers. Their muscular tail is used as a rudder. Large feet with webbing between toes provide strong swimming paddles that propel them well when pursing prey. Like all carnivores, they have canine teeth used for capturing and tearing prey. 

A family of three half grown otters were jostling in field near a wetland. They were having great fun and were oblivious to surrounding activity. When one saw me, it ended their jovial fun and they ran for cover. The open area was harvested for timber and tree top branches were piled. The otters ran for cover in the brush pile. 

I approached and saw them peering at me with wide eyes. My presence made them nervous and they contemplated what they should do. Two stayed in the brush pile but the third felt it needed to escape. It left the pile and ran across the logged clearing for more secure safety. Had I been wolf, coyote, or bobcat that might have spelled death for the young otter. This time the otter escaped with only fear and no injury or death. 

Encounters with mink, otters, and weasels have been infrequent. Skunks make their presence known by the odor that follows them. Even without spraying, the scent lingers in areas they traverse. They are predators with a diet heavily weighted toward insects. Amazingly, they dig up yellow jacket nests at night to feed heavily on pupae. It seems they would be stung to death but apparently not. 

Two members of the weasel family rarely encountered are the American pine marten and fisher. Both inhabit areas with more wilderness character where they depend on extensive forest. I have seen each species once in the wild. 

Though the marten is a predator, it also feeds on nuts, berries, and fruit to meet its metabolic needs. It is known primarily for capturing squirrels and chipmunks but its diet is broader to include mice, voles, insects, and fish. The one I saw ran across a trail I was hiking in the backcountry at Seney National Wildlife Refuge. 

My encounter with a fisher was in northern Minnesota when it ran across the road at dawn. My personal experience about its nature niche is basically nonexistent. I need to spend more time exploring outdoors.

Weasel family members have their own predators like owls, hawks, bobcats, wolves, coyotes, and even snakes.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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