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Wednesday, 04 October 2006 00:00

The peculiar grace of the mink

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“On a morning in October, when a light mist hung over the pond, a mink appeared following this path beside the water’s edge. It ran in little spurts this way and that, alert, intense, tracing a weaving trail, turning aside, disappearing, reappearing, plunging into the water, swimming swiftly ...”

— Edwin Way Teale, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974)

 


Have you ever seen a mink in the wild? They’re generally nocturnal, but one can sometimes be spotted abroad during the day. Look quickly and don’t blink because generally you will, at best, catch only a brief glimpse before it disappears.

One winter evening during the mid-1980s, I was walking up Lands Creek above our home where there was, at that time, a tangle of fallen trees just beyond a bend in the trail. Movement over the water on one of the logs caught my attention just as I came around the bend.

A dark brown critter about 25 or so inches long, including its tail, was perched on the log looking down into the water. I froze in my tracks, hoping not to attract the mink’s attention. But it became instantly aware of my presence and darted to the far end of the log, disappearing in the dense undergrowth as if it had never existed.

My primary recollection of the encounter was the animal’s sinuous manner. It seemed to move like flowing water. Like a barn swallow in flight, it was grace personified.

A few years later my wife, Elizabeth, was walking up Deep Creek in the Smokies north of Bryson City when she saw a mink on the far side of the stream. She was able to watch it for perhaps five minutes as it explored a section of the bank. Then it went under the water and resurfaced far downstream. Her last glimpse came as it disappeared in a crevice in a rock outcrop.

Having a chance to watch a mink in the wild for that long is uncommon. Probably because she has an artist’s eye, Elizabeth’s primary recollection of her encounter wasn’t the animal’s movement but the rich, lustrous color of its dark coat, particularly as it emerged from the water.

Minks have a long neck and body, a long bushy tail, and short legs. Males can be over two feet long, including the tail, but females are considerably smaller. They often have white patches on their throats, although the ones Elizabeth and I observed didn’t.

Minks are semi-aquatic mammals that usually don’t roam too far from their wetland homes. Their fur is waterproofed with an outer coat of oily hairs that protects the dryer hairs next to the body. As everyone knows, the pelt is highly valued for making coats and other sorts of apparel. These days most mink furs come from ranches that breed the animals and process them.

They’ll eat fish, frogs, muskrats, snakes, turtles, and mice. And they will occasionally raid chicken houses. Like weasels, they kill their prey by biting them in the neck. Any surplus food is carried to their dens and cached away for future use.

Individual hunting territories are marked with a discharge from their anal glands that is offensive to the nose. Accordingly, the Cherokee word for mink is “svgi,” a term that refers to the animal as well as the onion plant.

Minks are as fearless as weasels, never backing down from combat when forced to fight, no matter the size of the opponent. Our German shorthaired pointer, Zeke, learned this the hard way about 10 years ago when he flushed one near a footbridge that led over the creek to the house.

Every time Zeke would grab the mink, it’d lock onto his nose like a vice-grip with its sharp teeth and claw at his eyes. The dog would squeal in pain and throw the mink into the brush with his paws. This went on for several minutes before Zeke decided he didn’t really have a bone to pick with Mr. Mink and let him slip away.

But Zeke apparently has been harboring a grudge against minks all these years. Last week, while walking with Elizabeth, he flushed another mink out of the underbrush into the creek. Without hesitation, he leaped into the water, grabbed the unfortunate animal and shook it time and again until its neck was no doubt broken. Then, he took the mink and buried it somewhere in the mountains. For Zeke, it was a matter of delayed revenge. But we very much regret the loss of the mink.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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