What animal can swim nonstop for three hours, climb trees like a champ, dive 16 feet deep, hold its breath for five minutes, purr like a cat and deliver a swift death with one bite to its prey’s neck? It’s Illinois’ top aquatic predator, the mink! Well, technically, they share the title of top aquatic predator with river otters.
For all the incredible things minks can do, most people have never seen one. They are not rare and can be found all over Illinois, especially in the northeastern parts of the state like Will County and in southern Illinois. Yet it’s not surprising there are so few mink sightings, because these mammals are mostly nocturnal — active at night. However, winter is good mink searching season. They are active in February and March, looking for partners. It’s not unheard of to see a male mink wandering around into the morning hours.
Minks are long and lean with short legs and long tails. Think of a graceful wiener dog. This helps them swim through the water without making waves. Size-wise they fit between two of their relatives. They are bigger than a weasel and smaller than an otter. Look for a white chin patch that stands out against their rich, reddish-brown fur.
They have two types of fur. Their soft, short fur helps keep them warm. Longer fur, called guard hairs, are covered with oil. This makes water quickly run off and protects their underfur from getting soaked. It’s almost like they are waterproof!
There’s no place like home
Minks are at home along the shores of rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and marshes. In fact, they don’t seem to want to be further than 100 feet from water.
Sometimes they create their own dens in rock piles or among exposed tree roots, but they really love taking over muskrat burrows. Their homes have two to five entrances and a cozy chamber lined with fur, grass and feathers. They don’t hibernate during winter, but in freezing cold weather or heavy snow, minks curl up in their dens for days at a time.
Does (female minks) and bucks (male minks) start mating in winter, and the does give birth around April or May. They have one litter each year with between four and seven kits (baby minks). After about six to eight weeks, kits begin exploring outside the den. They will be on their own by the end of summer.
What’s for dinner?
Minks eat meat, meat and more meat. These aggressive hunters are known to go after prey that is much larger than them. They enjoy snakes, birds and eggs. In the summer months, the menu features frogs, tadpoles, fish, crayfish, insects and muskrats. The rest of the year they rely on mammals like mice, voles, rabbits and even beavers. They usually haul their larger catches to their den, snacking on them for a while.
While they are the top of the water food chain, they do have to watch out. Minks are tasty treats for coyotes, foxes, bobcats and great horned owls.
Minks are perfectly adapted to all aspects of their environment; they are quick on land, swift climbers and powerful swimmers. Anywhere there is water, there are probably minks. Keep your eye open for these ultimate hunters this winter!
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