A mink with gunnel. (Courtesy Photo | Bob Armstrong)

A mink with gunnel. (Courtesy Photo | Bob Armstrong)

Something to mink about

These weasel family members are all over Alaska.

Right after a little (belated) snowfall in early December, I chanced to be prowling around some ponds in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. Mink feet had been there before me, leaving crisply defined footprints in the trails. That mink mostly kept to the foot paths rather than humping over and under the frozen grasses, but made occasional forays to the edges of the almost-frozen ponds. Mink — and deer, bear and porcupines — often use “our” trails, where there is easy going; snowshoe hares don’t seem to do so very often.

Mink can climb very well and have a rotatable ankle joint that lets them come down a tree headfirst (like a squirrel). But they usually hunt on the ground and in shallow water, both salt and fresh. They swim well, with partially webbed toes and can dive several meters deep. Their fur is water-repellent. They live all over Alaska, except for some islands and the very far north, reaching high densities in Southeast (except where heavily trapped).

Dens are usually near water — in hollow logs or burrows, under tree roots, often in an abandoned den of some other animal, such as a beaver or marmot. The video camera at the visitor center sometimes catches a mink exploring even the occupied beaver lodge in Steep Creek. Mink aren’t likely to use a burrow that belongs to an otter, however, because relationships between mink and otter are generally hostile. They share many of the same eating habits and otters sometimes kill and eat mink.

Mink are opportunistic foragers for meat of all sorts — everything from bugs and earthworms to fish, small mammals and birds. When foraging in the intertidal zone, they take crabs, clams, little fish and snails. Mink also gobble up bird eggs and carrion, including salmon carcasses. Cannibalism sometimes occurs. A big male mink sometimes may take down a hare or muskrat or a sitting bird twice its own size.

Mink are fierce enough to tackle prey that is bigger than themselves. Years ago, however, my old cat who was an experienced hunter, observed a mink travelling on the other side of my home pond and got wildly excited. She could hardly sit still at the window, bumping into the glass, whining, champing her teeth, twitching all over. Little did she know that she would become mink lunchmeat, had she been outdoors and free to engage with this so-attractive creature.

Mating, for mink, occurs in early spring and young are generally born in June. There may be as many as 10 of them in a litter, but four or five would be more usual. Both male and female mate promiscuously, so littermates may have different fathers. Mating often begins with a rough and no doubt boisterous fight that may leave the female with some wounds. The male then grabs the female by the back of the neck and they copulate, often several times. Copulation is a prolonged process, sometimes lasting as hour.

Eggs are fertilized over a period of several days but do not begin to develop immediately. Mink, along with other members of the weasel family, delay the implantation of the fertilized egg in the wall of the uterus. That egg may float around for several weeks before attaching to the uterine wall, getting a blood supply (via the placenta) from the motherand starting to develop. From implantation to birth takes only about a month but, as a result of delayed implantation, there can be as many as three months between copulation and birthing.

Kits are born blind, deaf, thinly furred and toothless. They get their milk teeth after about 16 days, and their permanent teeth begin to erupt after about six weeks. Their eyes open at a little over three weeks and weaning occurs at about five weeks. Kits start hunting, along with the mother, at about eight weeks of age, but become independent after another month and disperse to find their own home ranges. They mature by the next spring and can breed then.

American mink were introduced to Europe decades ago and now occur across much of northern Eurasia. They compete with the smaller, native Eurasian mink, whose populations have declined dramatically from that competition and many other factors. Mink were also introduced, more recently, to southern South America, which previously lacked any similar predator — no doubt the expanding mink populations cause consternation and carnage among the native riparian and shoreline birds there.


• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” is a weekly column that appears every Friday. Her essays can be found online at onthetrailsjuneau.wordpress.com.


A sleeping mink. (Courtesy Photo | Bob Armstrong)

A sleeping mink. (Courtesy Photo | Bob Armstrong)

More in Home

Rep. Sara Hannan (right) offers an overview of this year’s legislative session to date as Rep. Andi Story and Sen. Jesse Kiehl listen during a town hall by Juneau’s delegation on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Multitude of education issues, budget, PFD among top areas of focus at legislative town hall

Juneau’s three Democratic lawmakers reassert support of more school funding, ensuring LGBTQ+ rights.

Allison Gornik plays the lead role of Alice during a rehearsal Saturday of Juneau Dance Theatre’s production of “Alice in Wonderland,” which will be staged at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé for three days starting Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
An ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that requires quick thinking on and off your feet

Ballet that Juneau Dance Theatre calls its most elaborate production ever opens Friday at JDHS.

Danielle Brubaker shops for homeschool materials at the IDEA Homeschool Curriculum Fair in Anchorage on Thursday. A court ruling struck down the part of Alaska law that allows correspondence school families to receive money for such purchases. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Lawmakers to wait on Alaska Supreme Court as families reel in wake of correspondence ruling

Cash allotments are ‘make or break’ for some families, others plan to limit spending.

A waterfront view of Marine Parking Garage with the windows of the Juneau Public Library visible on the top floor. “Welcome” signs in several languages greet ships on the dock pilings below. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)
The story of the Marine Parking Garage: Saved by the library

After surviving lawsuit by Gold Rush-era persona, building is a modern landmark of art and function.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of the Inupiaq village of Nuiqsut, at the area where a road to the Willow project will be built in the North Slope of Alaska, March 23, 2023. The Interior Department said it will not permit construction of a 211-mile road through the park, which a mining company wanted for access to copper deposits. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Biden shields millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness from drilling and mining

The Biden administration expanded federal protections across millions of acres of Alaskan… Continue reading

Caribou cross through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in their 2012 spring migration. A 211-mile industrial road that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority wants to build would pass through Gates of the Arctic and other areas used by the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of the largest in North America. Supporters, including many Alaska political leaders, say the road would provide important economic benefits. Opponents say it would have unacceptable effects on the caribou. (Photo by Zak Richter/National Park Service)
Alaska’s U.S. senators say pending decisions on Ambler road and NPR-A are illegal

Expected decisions by Biden administration oppose mining road, support more North Slope protections.

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, speaks on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 13. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska House members propose constitutional amendment to allow public money for private schools

After a court ruling that overturned a key part of Alaska’s education… Continue reading

Newly elected tribal leaders are sworn in during the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s 89th annual Tribal Assembly on Thursday at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. (Photo courtesy of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)
New council leaders, citizen of year, emerging leader elected at 89th Tribal Assembly

Tlingit and Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson elected unopposed to sixth two-year term.

Most Read