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Minks and Weasels

Minks are members of the weasel (Mustelid) family, as are otters and badgers. These fearless carnivores are becoming much less common in Winnebago County, but if you are a careful observer, you may see them in the river and wetland habitats of the forest preserves. Minks are very dependent on water quality and abuandat aquatic prey. As WCFPD restores and protects more marsh, pond and river habitat, more minks and otters return to our area.

Weasels are woodland animals and are struggling to survive as our forests become degraded and fragmented. The higher quality woodlands of the forest preserves provide the habitat weasels rely on.

Weasels

Two species of weasels can be found in Winnebago County: the least weasel and the long-tailed weasel. Weasels are hard to confuse with other mammals. They are much smaller and thinner than mink or otter, the only other local creatures with which they might be mistaken. In Illinois, the least weasel is found only in the northern half of the state, while the long-tailed weasel occurs throughout. As its name suggests, the least weasel is small, generally less than half the size of the long-tailed weasel. Adult least weasels are about seven to nine inches long and weigh no more than two ounces, making them the smallest carnivores in the state. Their long-tailed cousins are 12 to 16 inches long and weigh between three and ten ounces. Since the sizes of individuals of these two species can be close, however, the best way to differentiate them is to look at their tails. Tails of least weasels are uniformly reddish brown and typically about an inch long, while those of long-tailed weasels have black tips and are several times as long, from three to six inches. Both species can turn completely white in winter, especially farther north where snow cover is more frequent.

American Mink

Mink live along rivers, lakes, ponds and marshes. The restored wetlands and protected streams in forest preserves provide the shorelines with brush and aquatic vegetation that mink require for shelter and hunting prey. Wild mink are much less abundant than they were 50 years ago because of habitat loss caused by development, stream channelization and drainage of wetlands. Though common and widespread, mink are rarely seen because they’re principally nocturnal. Your best bet for seeing them is in winter. Males travel longer distances and more often in daylight between January and March, because this is breeding season. If you go to a stream or wetland, especially on a snowy winter day, you might catch sight of one. Even if you don’t, you are almost sure to see their tracks in the snow, or their distinctive scat, full of feathers, fur, and bones.