Suburban Wild: Muskrat and Mink, Inc.

Barbara Julien is a local writer and nature enthusiast who writes about species in Oak Bay

Muskrat and Mink sounds like a business partnership, and in a way that’s what it is. These aquatic mammals share the business of stream upkeep, curating riverside weeds and the co-species such as the small fish and crayfish which they eat. They keep stream banks vibrant and uncongested by tunnelling and building dens, but locally they’re out of work: no urban streams are left unspoilt.

That would be why we so seldom see mink and the common muskrat, although according to the Victoria Natural History Society they’re still around in the Capital Regional District. Their secret and rare presence only increases their allure for wildlife-lovers. The muskrat gives birth to several litters per year of up to eight young each time, so it should be plentiful. But for this creature home-making is all about “location location location”, and there’s not much real estate left in Oak Bay for a lodge-building river-dweller, which lives and looks like a small beaver.

Before habitat loss occurred due to urbanization, these animals were victims of a permanent good-hair-day, their hair taking the form of dense soft fur for which trappers hunted them almost to extinction. Now, for the few people who still wear fur, mink are farmed and the wild mink sometimes glimpsed around Oak Bay live unmolested. They are a native species, while the common muskrat was introduced from the U.S. to mid-Vancouver Island in the 1920s, and made its way gradually down to the southern tip of the island. In 1905 it was also introduced into Europe, where it’s still common.

The muskrat eats cattails, and one of its main claims to fame is the ability to eat them underwater, where it can stay submerged for up to fifteen minutes. Although it gnaws and builds like a beaver, it is more closely related to mice. When hunted for fur it was called “musquash” by fur retailers because people didn’t like the idea of wearing a rat coat. Oddly enough, the word “rat” bothered them, while the cruelty of leghold traps and the near wiping out of a species apparently didn’t. Furbearers are still subject to trapping further up-island.

Mink, smaller and darker than his partner Muskrat, is a tunneller rather than a lodge-builder. Mink are carnivores occasionally glimpsed darting under the willows along Bowker Creek, where they prey on baby mallards in spring. Females give birth to only one litter per year, of six to ten young. Gestation takes 39 days but this is one of those species that can suspend embryo development for several weeks. Having but one chance a year females need to give birth only when conditions are optimal.

Males are territorial and will fight off other males from a chosen stretch of riverbank. A dark rushing blur at about 50 – 60 cm in length (with another 15 – 25 for the tail) it is easily mistaken for a river otter. Both mink and otter are members of the weasel family, but unlike the bold otter mink don’t often venture into backyard ponds — or maybe some do and some backyard pond-owners see them but help them out by not over-advertising their presence. It is the wisdom of mink to stay undercover, and as urban wildlife they need all the allies they can get. Like muskrat, they may have retired from stream-keeping, but they’re not dead yet.

Barbara Julien is a local writer and nature enthusiast who writes monthly about the various species making their home in Oak Bay.

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