The frantic cottontail rabbit hesitates at the edge of the tall prairie grasses. Should she cross the mowed path and continue on the game trail, betting her scent will mix with the smell of other animals and confuse her pursuer? Or, should she take a risk with aerial predators and follow the mowed path, hoping to gain distance quickly with unencumbered travel? The rabbit decides on the former, sealing her fate to a battle of wits with the tenacious predator that follows.
Seconds later, a handsome animal with an elongated body arrives. His chocolate-brown fur radiates a luxurious sheen in the evening sun. He pauses briefly and looks down the mowed path, revealing his determined coal-black eyes, white chin patch and dark flesh-tone-colored nose. In an instant he’s off, down the same game trail the rabbit followed, his stretched body exaggerated further by a long thick tail as it undulates confidently over the prairie turf.
The brook trout hovers lazily in the clear-water pool below the waterfall. He’s traveled miles up this small spring-fed feeder stream to reach the gravel-bottomed breeding habitat. He’s spent most of his time defending his breeding territory from other males, before finally participating in a courtship dance with a receptive female. The trout, tired from courtship activities, his vibration senses masked by the aerated waters of the falls, fails to recognize an elongated body diving at him like a torpedo. Its long tail acts like a rudder; its flattened fur maximizes speed, and an occasional paw stroke with partly-webbed toes allows it to maintain momentum.
A gray squirrel sits on a low tree branch gnawing on a black walnut shell. His back is near the tree trunk and his upright tail is folded back over his body. Food is in short supply this fall, and competition with other squirrels has been fierce. He’s engaged in battle after battle to earn the right to this food source, and finally, he’s able to enjoy it. The grating sound of teeth on nut masks the sound of claws penetrating bark. Unbeknown to the squirrel, a long-bodied predator is rapidly approaching from below, powered by short, sharp claws and stabilized by a long tail.
The rabbit, trout and squirrel all fall victim to the American mink; a peerless, or unequaled, predator. A member of the Muskelid family, mink have adopted a broad range of the hunting skills that other members of the weasel family have perfected. They hunt fish similar to a river otter, stalk squirrels like the American pine marten, and scent trail rabbits much like a wolverine tracks a snowshoe hare. While not as efficient as their cousins, which are more specialized in these specific hunting skills, the aggregate of the American mink’s hunting skills allows it to survive in multiple habitats.
The core of mink habitat is wetland. However, mink, especially males, can range a good distance away from wetland habitat. In ecologically “restored” properties that range from wetlands, prairie grasslands and uplands consisting of oak savanna and open oak woodland, I routinely see male mink a mile or more away from wet areas. These complex ecologically rich habitats support numerous quantities of a broad range of prey species. Favorite prey include muskrat, crayfish, fish, waterfowl and frogs in aquatic habitat; voles, mice, ground squirrels, rabbits, snakes and frogs in grassland habitat, and mice, voles, snakes, chipmunks and squirrels in wooded habitat.
Mink are mostly nocturnal. However, it’s not unusual to see them during the day. Look for them crossing mowed trails or burn breaks in prairie grasslands, probing along a stream, or bounding though the fallen woodland leaves in the fall.
If you’re not lucky enough to see one, mink do leave clues of their presence. Their tracks are easy to identify. The toe pad and claw combine to give each toe a triangular look in mud or snow, as compared, for example, to round toe pads from a small house cat track. Hot spots to find tracks are mud flats along bodies of water, light snow or heavy frost over ice, under bridges or other items that maintain vegetation-free soft soil, and along muskrat slides (trails) on pond or stream banks.
Mink also use their scat (feces) as a signpost. Look for scat in prominent locations such as logs and rocks along water. Another good spot to look is on bridges or boardwalks crossing wet areas in grasslands. Mink scat is generally small and linear. It’s black when fresh but can fade in color over time. It will also contain bone fragments, feathers or bits of fur.
Less frequently, it’s possible to find mink kills. Mink, especially males, can kill animals much larger than their body size. I’ve found freshly killed adult rabbits with only a small portion of it consumed, typically near the neck or shoulder area.
The next time you’re out exploring your favorite wetland and associated upland habitat areas, take some time to see if you can find evidence left by the American mink. And if you happen to see a frantic rabbit running about, stay put, you may be rewarded with a rare sight of a peerless predator.