California Nature

Learn about California's beautiful and unique nature.

California Mink & Weasels
California nature is home to both the Long-tailed Weasel and the American Mink. Recently, there have been more and more sightings of animals around Southern California that have been identified as ferrets. If you happen to see a creature that definitely looks like weasel, but doesn't look like the roly poly ferrets that you adore, then you have probably seen a Long-tailed Weasel. Twice a year these weasels shed their fur, once in the spring and again in the fall. This process is controlled by photoperiod. The coat of animals in northern populations is white in the winter and brown in the summer, while those in southern populations are brown all the time.

Mink are semi-aquatic mammals and members of the weasel family, which include otters, ferrets, badgers, and martens. Minks can be found near rivers, lakes, and marshes throughout North America and Canada. The long-tailed weasel is a long slender bodied, long-tailed, short-legged animal nearly the size of a gray squirrel. It is very similar in appearance to its cousin the mink, although somewhat smaller.

Long tailed weasel are long and thin and found in California natureThe Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) is the most widely distributed mustelid in the New World. Its range extends from southern Canada through most of the United States to Mexico, Central America and the northern parts of South America. It is generally found in open or semi-open habitats near water.

Weighing less than 16 ounces, long-tailed weasels are typically reddish-brown on its upper body parts, with white throat, chin and belly, and a black-tipped tail. Like other weasels, the Long-tailed runs by a series of bounds, with its back humped at each bound and its tail trailing backward. It makes its dens in the abandoned burrows of other mammals, often chipmunks, and also ground squirrels, moles, or pocket gophers. Within the den it constructs a nest, primarily of hair from prey. The maternity den may also be in the burrow of another small mammal, or under a stump in a gully.

Long-tailed weasels have well-developed senses of sight, hearing, and smell, which allows them to be efficient and sensitive predators. Although the long-tailed weasel is strictly a carnivore, it is very opportunistic in its selection. It preys primarily on small rodents, such as mice, rats and shrews, but it will also eat chipmunks, birds, eggs, reptiles, and amphibians. To some extent, the size of the prey does not seem to matter. The weasel has been known to attack full-grown rabbits and will occasionally enter a chicken coop and kill poultry. When prey is plentiful, the long-tailed weasel will store its surplus food. Unlike most wild predators, the long-tailed weasel will often kill much more than it can eat. Perhaps this is why it has the reputation of being a “bloodthirsty killer.”

The long-tailed weasel can be found in a variety of habitat types. Forest edge, fencerows, stream banks, brush lands, open areas, and farmlands are all suitable habitats for this little furbearer. Long-tailed weasels usually make their dens in the burrows of other animals such as chipmunks. However, they will use other suitable locations such as rock crevices, stumps and hollow logs for dens. The nest is constructed of tightly packed grasses and usually lined with the fur of its prey. While long-tailed weasels can be active during the day, they are more active at night. These weasels are also known to be noisy animals, but the noise is usually in response to some type of disturbance.

The American mink is often killed for its furThe American mink is often killed for its fur The American mink is a dark brown, semi-aquatic weasel prized for its luxurious fur. The mink has short legs, webbed toes, and a long skinny body that enable it to be an excellent swimmer. Adult males weigh 2 to 3.5 pounds and measure 23 to 27 inches in length. Adult female mink are smaller than males and weigh 2 to 2.5 pounds and measure 18 to 22 inches in length.

The American mink can be found in almost any part of the United States and Canada except Arizona, dry areas of the west, and southern California. Mink live along lakes, rivers, and streams, and densely vegetated areas in swamps and marshes. Their den may be an abandoned beaver den, a hollow log, or a burrow dug by the mink. In South Dakota, muskrat bank dens or houses built from vegetation are often used by mink. All dens are temporary because mink move frequently.

Mink are very territorial animals. A male mink will not tolerate another male within its territory, but appears to be less aggressive towards females. Generally, the territories of both male and female animals are separate, but a female's territory may sometimes overlap with that of a male. Very occasionally it may be totally within a male's. The mink's territories, which tend to be long and narrow, stretch along river banks, or around the edges of lakes or marshes. Sizes vary, but they can be several miles long. Female territories are smaller than those of the male. Each territory has one or two central areas (core areas) where the mink spends most of its time.

The core area is usually associated with a good food supply, such as a pool rich in fish, or a good rabbit warren. The mink may stay in its core area, which can be quite small, for several days at a time, but it also makes excursions to the ends of its territory. These excursions seem to be associated with the defense of the territory against intruders. It is likely that the mink checks for any signs of a strange mink and leaves droppings (scats) redolent of its personal scent to reinforce its territorial rights. American minks are mainly active at night and do not hibernate. The American mink may be seen foraging for food in the water and along the banks. California's mink diet on frogs, insects, birds, reptiles, and fish.

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