Yet, wild, free-ranging mammals always generate excitement among observers. The thrill often seems disproportionate to their frequency. A coyote, striped skunk or white-tailed deer — all common – will nearly always grab and hold one’s eye.
Maybe we subconsciously recognize them as our distant kin in the phylum Chordata.
As a sad reflection on how the times have changed, nearly 20 percent of Ohio’s mammals that occurred at the time of European settlement are extirpated — vanquished from the state.
In the 1700s, the true wilderness of Ohio teemed with fish, fowl and various beasts. Its expansive forests, prairies and fruited plains harbored mammals that few modern Ohioans realize were part of our past.
American bison forged “buffalo trails” and ranged statewide. The last one was shot in Lawrence County in 1803, our year of statehood. Gray wolves and mountain lions were common predators, but they were shot out by the mid-1800s. Lynx roamed northern Ohio forests, but they couldn’t compete with burgeoning human populations and vanished early in our settlement era. Elk, once common and widespread, were hunted out by the 1840s.
A lesser-known animal once found here is the American marten. It, like the other vanished mammals, disappeared by the middle of the 19th century.
The marten is a fascinating carnivore belonging to the Mustelidae family, which includes minks, otters and weasels.
The first marten encounter was utterly serendipitous. I and a photographer friend were seeking birds in a campground when a marten dashed from cover and darted into a paper-recycling bin. We retreated to cover and waited it out in minus 2-degree cold.
Eventually the curious brute emerged from cover and offered fine looks. Martens are similar in size to a mink, but appear burlier — mildly bearlike. An adult measures about 2 feet in length. The bushy tail adds another half foot.
A hefty individual weighs about 3 pounds. Their tri-toned coloration is striking: whitish face and bib, black legs and tail, and yellowish-brown body.
We later ran across another, bolder marten foraging in the snow — it is the animal in the accompanying photo.
Martens are voracious predators, feeding mostly on small mammals such as mice and voles. But few critters up to its size or even larger are safe in the sphere of a hungry marten. They are known to take snowshoe hares — another mammal no longer found in Ohio — and these strapping bunnies can weigh 4 pounds.
Black bears are now routinely seen, especially in northeastern Ohio. River otters are thriving over much of the state. A bigger relative of the marten, the fisher, has been reported several times in recent years in eastern Ohio. So has the famously prickly porcupine. And bobcats grow more common each year: There were over 500 sightings in 2017.
But for Ohio marten enthusiasts, a trip to Canada’s north woods is required.
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.