The American Fur Co. was founded in 1808, and for a brief time in the 1830s, it was one of America’s largest companies. Its success made its founder, John Jacob Astor, the first multimillionaire in the United States.
Although demand for beaver pelts drove much of the American Fur Co.’s business, other mammals were vital to its success, especially the American mink. As the easier-to-trap beaver became increasingly rare, the mink became more important to trappers.
Between 1820 and 1900, the American Fur Co., Hudson’s Bay Co. and other fur purveyors sold about 12.5 million mink pelts.
Fortunately, these large weasels survived the days of indiscriminate trapping and are common today. But they are often wary, largely nocturnal and usually difficult to observe in the wild.
I recently visited Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park to photograph birds, arriving around dawn. I was not long into a grassy trail that weaved through a marsh when who should come bounding down the path? A mink!
Like a semi-psychotic mammalian Slinky, the mink romped along the trail, moving rapidly in exaggerated, undulating bounds.
When it got within 20 feet of my position, the hunter finally noticed me and careened into the cattails, but not before I took a series of photos in the dim light.
Mink belong to the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels and otters. Of Ohio’s regularly occurring mustelids, only the river otter is larger. A big male mink — males are 15 to 20 percent larger than females — can measure 2 1/2 feet from nose to tail tip. It might weigh nearly 3 pounds.
While a 3-pound mammal might not seem like much, in the case of the mink, it’s Genghis Khan, Jack the Ripper and Attila the Hun rolled into a well-furred, tubular package. Just ask a muskrat. Even though these aquatic rodents can significantly outweigh a mink, they often fall prey to the voracious predators.
Streams and wetlands are the bailiwicks of mink. The animals play an important role in the food chain, taking fish, amphibians, small mammals, birds and other such fare. Would-be victims are in a tough spot if they land in the sights of a hungry mink, which has speed and the ability to swim and even climb trees.
Few predators will attempt to take a mink, although coyotes and great horned owls might try.
A mink that finds itself among prey aplenty adopts a kill-and-cache strategy. It’ll dispatch everything it can and attempt to hide the uneaten victims. On occasion, the owner of a poorly secured chicken coop learns about mink killing frenzies.
Come early spring, minks become amorous. As befits such a savage animal, the mating process is not lovey-dovey. The male seizes the female, pins her and often bites her neck and head. After she’s survived that rough romance, she’ll deliver four or five pups in an underground burrow.
Humans who act like minks are likely to be institutionalized, and good thing. But we have nothing to fear from these fascinating beasts, although we can be grateful they’re not the size of bears.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.