Our last blog for our mammalian march along the French Broad will focus on two smaller furbearers, the muskrat (yeah, like Suzy & Sam) and the (don’t tell him he’s small cause he’s got as big ego) mink.
Muskrats top out at around five pounds and while beavers often go 30 pounds and sometimes 60 there is, occasionally, a little confusion. Sometimes people talk of seeing tiny or “baby” beavers around a beaver lodge – but the small critter they are seeing is actually a muskrat. Beavers often allow muskrats to set up an efficiency apartment of their own within the den. The thought is that beavers have nothing to fear from muskrats and having them around actually provides extra eyes, ears and/or noses to aid in the detection of predators.
Adult muskrats are about two feet long and up to half of that can be the long, bare, vertically-flattened (keeled) tail, which helps propel them in the water. These thick-furred brownish black rodents are highly adapted to their aquatic environment. Besides the keeled tail, their hind feet are partially webbed, their ears can be closed off with a membrane and they can easily stay underwater for 15 minutes.
The muskrat is found across most of North America from Canada to the Deep South (except for Florida where it is replaced by the Florida water rat, Neofiber alleni,) all the way to northern Mexico. Muskrats are promiscuous and may reproduce anytime of the year, they often produce up to three litters per year in North Carolina. While primarily herbivores, feeding on cattails, grasses, sedges, and other aquatic vegetation, muskrats are not averse to augmenting their diet with a little fresh meat, especially fresh-water mussels.
On the other hand, our next riverine rascal, the mink, is totally carnivorous – unabashedly so! This small predator, sometimes called “water weasel” is only 2 – 3 feet long, including 6-8 inches of tail, and weighs about three pounds. It’s primary diet includes fish, shellfish, crayfish, snakes and large insects, but it will sometimes prey on muskrats, nutria, rabbits, geese and swans.
The natural range of the American mink, Neovison vison, is from Alaska to the southern tier excluding drier parts of Arizona, California, West Texas, New Mexico and Nevada. It has been released, sometimes accidentally, in Europe where it has, unfortunately, thrived and become an exotic nuisance. It can be found across North Carolina and while the population is greater and more secure in coastal marshes and piedmont swamps it is found along the French Broad and other rivers and streams in the mountains. Protecting wetlands, especially wetland riverine ecosystems, is paramount to protecting mink populations.
Mink, like muskrats, are also promiscuous but they are not rodents and they only produce one litter per year. Minks breed in January and February but because they exhibit delayed implantation the fertilized egg is not implanted in the womb for nearly a month and they usually give birth to four or five kits in May.
Because of their small size, excellent senses (and desire not to be noticed) and the fact that they are primarily nocturnal, mink are some of the least-seen critters along the French Broad. You should consider yourself quite fortunate if you get to cross paths with this elusive “water weasel.”