Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 24, 2008

Death at a Feeder

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:38 am

Today an older couple from Trenton stopped in to satisfy their curiosity about a recent sighting.  Their names will remain unstated because, frankly, I never got their names! “Are there Martens here?” she asked with slightly squinting eyes indicating her expectation of a negative answer. She had just taken off her tight knit cap so that her silvery hair was matted down tight to her head– making her eyes and nose look larger than normal. Upon receiving my expected negative answer, she shook her head and began to describe a furry chocolate brown creature with a long tail – in other words a perfect description of a mink. She retorted that it was “quite big (holding her hands about 24 inches apart) and that it had a wide head (forming a triangle with her hands about the size of a large snapping turtle head).” It couldn’t be a mink, according to her, “that’s why I was looking on the internet to find out what it was.” A picture of a Pine Marten was the only thing she saw, though she didn’t elaborate on the details of her Google search. Given the exchange, I felt her search criterion was probably something like a “hairy brown animal larger than a mink even though I don’t know how big a mink is.”

  I assured her that by all accounts, they had seen a male mink and that the creatures are relatively common, though rarely seen due to nocturnal habits. Martens have large ears, are lighter grayish brown and, most importantly, are not found anywhere near southern Michigan. I even showed them (really her, because he said little the whole time) a study skin mount of several mink as well as a marten mount for comparison. She reluctantly agreed to the mink I.D. but was obviously flummoxed by the size.  Her husband piped in with a verbal agreement that my larger mount was pretty close to the actual size of the mystery critter. It took another explanation that a living animal looks a whole lot fluffier and robust than a dried out, artificially positioned, ten year old mount before she submitted.

  Hoping to God that I hadn’t just un-convinced somebody out of a rare marten sighting, I asked about the circumstances of the encounter. “It came to our bird feeder,” she said. “There were some squirrels and a couple of muskrats feeding there.”  “Muskrats?” I interjected in an obviously confused manner. “Yes, there were two muskrats. Anyway, this mink ran up to the feeder and chased the squirrels off – well, he chased them up to the base of a tree, but looked more like he was chasing them off rather than, you know, chasing them.”  “Have you seen muskrats at your feeder before?” I continued on point. “No, and there isn’t really any water nearby, but anyway…the mink even put his paws up on the tree and looked up as if it was going to go after those squirrels. But, it turned and ran back over to the muskrats.”

  Apparently anticipating my next question, she went on without pause and said, “and no, the muskrats didn’t try to run away or anything. Then,” holding her hat in hand and leaning over into my face (her hair was fluffing out by now so that her eyes didn’t seem quite so bulging nor her warmed up nose quite so big) she whispered “and then, the mink went up to the muskrat and looked it right in the eye, like this.  It was only a few inches away (which she demonstrated with uncomfortable effect).  “Did either ‘rat move or try to run?” I asked while backing away. “No. Both of them just sat there. Suddenly the mink jumped at the nearest muskrat just like that!  It grabbed it by the back of the head – by the neck- and held on.  The muskrat couldn’t do a thing and couldn’t turn around.  It flailed around but not much else.  The mink wrapped its front legs around the muskrat from behind and just held on and would not let go as they rolled around.”

  Her account had unexpectedly turned into a riveting tale of predator vs. prey, so I pressed for details. “What did the other ‘rat do. Did it run away? Did the attacked ‘rat rear up or bear its teeth or anything?”  “The other one just walked away, it didn’t run – it just kinda walked off.  The first one might have reared up but it happened so quick that it really didn’t have a chance.  Pretty soon it was dead and the mink dragged it off.”

  “We were so shocked,” she said, “that we didn’t have time to take any pictures. We tried, but they came out really blurry. Do mink normally do that kind of thing?”  I assured them that they had witnessed an event that normally occurs under the cover of darkness or behind the thick veil of cat-tails. Mink are muskrat predators.

  There were two things (perhaps three if you count two muskrats at a bird feeder) that were odd about this encounter. First of all, the whole thing happened out in the full sun of mid day. Secondly, the muskrat pair made no attempt to clear the premises when the mink appeared on the scene.  They had plenty of opportunity, given the squirrel chase and all. Even when face to face with their ancestral enemy, their demeanor remained calm (perhaps stupefied would be a better description).

 Apparently these ‘rats were a set of fringe animals struggling to survive.  Their judgment clouded by hunger, the exposed promise of bird seed proved irresistible to them. I have seen several similar muskrats as of late that are living out of culverts like so many homeless people. Late winter population pressures have forced them out of prime habitat and into the hinterlands. These ‘rats are extremely vulnerable to predation, disease, exposure, or the sudden finality of tire death.

  Our mink, ever the opportunist and perhaps a bit on the fringe himself, took advantage of the situation and elected to go for the kill. Normally a healthy muskrat is more than a match for a mink. They will do everything possible to avoid an encounter, but when cornered they can duke it out with great effect. In a contest of mink vs. muskrat, there is no guarantee that the mink will come out on top. Unless they have the advantage of surprise, the well advised mink will avoid any direct attack on an adult ‘rat. 

    In this case, the muskrats were weak and the mink immediately perceived it.  There was no surprise attack, it was direct and frontal. I am satisfied with the graphic portrayal given me by the intense visitor, but selfishly wish that I could have witnessed this scene myself. I am slightly haunted by her description of that moment when the mink approached the ‘rat and gazed directly into its inner being. She was looking direct into my eyes and I was rendered momentarily uneasy at the invasion of my personal space. This, however, heightened my perception of what transpired between those two creatures.

   They say that the predator and the prey are linked at a level above mere sustenance and that they are mutually dependent – each upon the other. Both are subject to the whims of weather and hard times. It’s all there in some ancient unspoken contract. I suppose it’s possible that in that brief pre-attack moment the gift of life was willingly passed according to the demands spelled out in the fine print.

  I also know that what started out as a teaching moment for me became one in which I became the pupil.

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