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

An array of stickers awaits voters on Election Day 2022. With votes tallied and certified, the Empire reviewed how Juneau and nearby communities voted precinct by precinct. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
With the ballots counted, here’s how our districts voted

A post-certification precinct-by-precinct breakdown of statewide race results.

Multidisciplinary artist Mary McEwen talks about her experience learning to weave during her Artist Talk Saturday morning about her exhibition, “Hit & Miss: Adventures in Textile Reuse,” at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Weaving a new narrative out of repurposed goods

Local artist shares her journey of learning to weave and the importance of reusing

Mountain reflections are seen from the Mendenhall Wetlands. (Courtesy Photo / Denise Carroll)
Wild Shots: Photos of Mother Nature in Alaska

Superb reader-submitted photos of wildlife, scenery and/or plant life.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
At Wednesday evening’s special Assembly meeting, the Assembly appropriated nearly $4 million toward funding a 5.5% wage increase for all CBJ employees along with a 5% increase to the employer health contribution. According to City Manager Rorie Watt, it doesn’t necessarily fix a nearly two decade-long issue of employee retention concerns for the city.
City funds wage increase amid worker shortage

City Manager says raise doesn’t fix nearly two decade-long issue of employee retainment

Clarise Larson/ Juneau Empire 
People walk the docks as the sun sets in downtown Juneau on Monday night. The City and Borough of Juneau recently signed a memorandum of agreement with member companies of Cruise Lines International Association to come to an agreement on a number of tourism management issue in Juneau.
City accepting proposals for marine passenger fee projects

Residents and local business have until Jan. 2 to submit ideas to the city.

Police vehicles converge near Kaxdigoowu Héen Dei, also known as Brotherhood Bridge Trail on Sept. 21, 2022, the day police say Faith Rogers, 55, of Juneau was killed. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file)
Suspect in killing of Faith Rogers indicted on additional charges

This follows an first-degree murder charge late last week.

A chart shows non-genital syphilis cases in Alaska have risen about 1,340% between 2017 and 2021, reflecting an enormous increase in cases nationwide. But Alaska is among the states with the highest rates of increase, with the third-highest rates of syphilis and chlamydia in 2020, the most recent year state-by-state comparisons are available. (Alaska Department of Health)
Syphilis cases still skyrocketing statewide

1,340% increase between 2017 and 2021 largely due to state’s relative youth and health care access

Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire 
Maddie Kombrink poses in the lobby of Coppa Cafe where she is now the new owner after working as an employee on and off for the last five years.

Most Read