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Mink

Scientific Name: Mustela vison

Description

Mink swimming in the water, Photo by Brady Dillsworth
Photo by Brady Dillsworth

Mink have a long, thin body and neck, short legs, and a 6-8 inch bushy tail. Male mink generally are larger than females and may exceed two feet in length. The fur is dark brown on the back, blending into a slightly lighter shade on the belly. A distinguishing mink characteristic is the small white patch of fur on the chin of all animals. Mink fur is very soft and lustrous. The dense underfur is protected by oily guard hairs that tend to waterproof the coat.

Like other members of the weasel family, such as weasels and skunks, mink possess a pair of anal scent glands. The liquid in these glands has a strong smell and probably is used for communication or defense purposes.

Distribution and Habitat

Mink are distributed throughout all of New York State and most of the United States and Canada. They occupy a wide variety of wetland habitat types including streams, rivers, lakes, freshwater and saltwater marshes and coastlines. Their population levels are generally higher in those areas of New York with an abundance of these habitat types.

As part of a mink study in the late 1980's, central and western New York trappers were surveyed to determine the types of habitat where mink were caught. The results are: 62% stream, 9% marsh, 10% lake, and 12% beaver ponds. Nearly three-quarters of the mink were harvested from either stream or beaver pond habitat.

Also, as part of this study, wildlife biologists and technicians surveyed streams in central and western New York to determine the presence of mink. Mink tracks were more abundant in the Southern Tier of New York than in the Lake Plains. The reason for this is uncertain and needs further study.

Mink usually are found in sparsely populated rural areas. However, they occasionally live in suburban settings. Two mink carcasses were submitted from a densely populated area in the Town of Amherst, a growing suburb of Buffalo, during the central and western New York mink study.

Biology and Behavior

Mink generally are solitary animals, with males and females associating only during the late winter breeding season. Female mink are sexually mature at one year of age. Pregnant female mink may establish den sites in cavities of tree roots, rock piles, brush piles and log jams or beaver lodges. Research in North America shows that the most widely used den sites are bank burrows of other animals, particularly muskrats.

Following a gestation period of about 51 days, the female gives birth to 1-8 young (4 average). Mink kits are born between April and June. Their eyes are closed, they are hairless, and they weigh about 1/4 ounce at birth. They develop rapidly and can eat meat within 5 weeks. Female mink reach their adult weight by the fall of their first year.

Mink are primarily nocturnal with most activity spent feeding. Their list of prey species is varied. Food items include small mammals, fish, birds and amphibians. Mammals such as muskrats, rabbits and small rodents lead the list as the most important food for mink. Waterfowl, small marsh-nesting birds, and crayfish also are important summer foods, while fish are a common food item of mink during the winter months.

Mink are very active and curious creatures. Their presence is seen easily along streams and creeks the day after a light snow. Their characteristic loping gait leaves double print or paired tracks. Tracks often show how they travel from one stream bank to the other, investigating nearly every hole, crack, crevice and overhang that may hide a potential meal.

Mink are equally at home in water or on land. It often is possible to find areas along a stream where they have come up through a hole in the ice to begin their foraging activities along the stream.

Mortality

Unlike many small mammals, mink generally are not preyed on by larger predators. They occasionally fall victim to red and gray fox, bobcat, or great horned owls.

While mink are hosts for parasites such as mites, fleas and lice, these do not cause significant mortality in mink populations. Diseases such as salmonella, distemper and tularemia have been diagnosed in ranch mink, but are not believed to be a serious mortality factor of wild mink populations.

Environmental contaminants are known to affect captive mink. Residues of pollutants such as mercury, pesticides (DDT, DDE and dieldrin) and polychlorinted biphenyls (PCBs) can cause weight loss and reproductive problems in ranch mink that are fed contaminated fish. The effect of these contaminants on wild mink populations is uncertain. However, mink from several areas of New York have been found with high levels of some of these substances in their bodies.

Management

The demand for mink pelts and fur has an interesting history. The prestige of owning a mink coat has been associated with high society, or individuals with the financial resources to afford such a garment. During the first half of this century, most mink coats were made with pelts of wild caught mink. Ranch mink production in North America increased ten-fold from 1953 to 1966. This large number of ranch mink tended to stabilize the market by providing a constant supply of fur at a more reasonable price than wild caught mink. The large supply and reasonable price of mink fur created a secondary market for stoles, jackets, and garments trimmed with mink fur. This enabled individuals of moderate income to become buyers of mink.

North American mink farm production declined by 65 percent between 1967 and 1974 due to the increase in the world supply of ranch mink produced primarily in Europe. An increase in the demand for fur garments during the mid-1970's reversed this downward trend in North American ranch mink production. There was an increase in the prices paid for all fur. This was followed by a decline in the demand for fur garments in the mid-80's. This most recent decline has reduced and stabilized the price of all hides, including wild caught mink.

Mink trapping seasons coincide with the periods when mink can be trapped without stressing the population, when pelts are of high quality, and when trappers feel the season is most productive. Seasons open at different times around the state because New York contains many types of land use and habitat. The best and most practical period for mink trapping, biologically and socially, vary with land use and habitat across the state.

The Department of Environmental Conservation annually conducts a statewide survey of trapper. They are asked if they trapped, the counties and wildlife management units where they trapped, species trapped, and numbers taken. The purpose of the survey is to monitor furbearer populations and harvest.

The depressed fur market of today discourages many who trapped during the 70's, when fur prices were at some of the highest levels of the century. However, while the number of trappers has declined over the past few years, interest in mink trapping has not.

The mink population in New York State is secure and able to sustain current harvest levels. Despite the uncertainty of the fur market, the interest in mink remains a high priority among trappers.