2018-10-06 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Variety of Wild Mammals Make Island Home
By Patricia Martin

When I am teaching class, or just visiting with guests, I often am asked about the wild mammals that live on the Island. Most people dismiss the eastern chipmunks and the red and gray squirrels that seem to be everywhere these days, and even the black phase of the gray squirrel gets little interest. People want to know about wild animals that live here and, generally, the larger they are, the more interesting they seem to be, so this column is about mammals that have been encountered by myself or others this summer.

Many people have been fascinated with the American beavers. A number of years ago they built a lodge in the cove at Mission Point. Beaver are the largest rodents in our area, and probably the best builders. For years their exploits have been chronicled online, and, to a lesser extent, in my column. This spring the beavers at the cove disappeared. Some believe that they were trapped and gotten rid of because some individuals did not like the damage they had done to some of the trees. Others believe that the beaver have just relocated to other spots here or adjacent islands and the mainland. This summer the only animals left in the beaver lodge were the muskrats that had been living with the beaver last winter. Whatever the case (and I like to think that the beaver have merely relocated), the beaver lodge is no more. The high water and winds, pounding waves, and lack of builders to maintain the structure have led to the destruction of the lodge. I have had one report this summer that a young beaver was seen coming out of the water at the point beyond Arch Rock, near Mike Bradley’s house, heading up into the woods. This is not the first time beaver have “left” Mackinac. Every 20 years or so, American beaver have shown up on Mackinac, either damming up Brown’s Brook or trying to find other sites to live. They stay for a while, until they eat up the good food (poplars, aspens, birch, willows, young maples) in an area and then move on. I know we will see them back again somewhere, some day.

A deer crosses an Island road. (Photograph by Cindy Sheehan) A deer crosses an Island road. (Photograph by Cindy Sheehan) 
A baby woodchuck munches on a plant. (Photograph by Betty Murcko) A baby woodchuck munches on a plant. (Photograph by Betty Murcko) Another of our rodents that I have had a run-in with this summer is the groundhog, or woodchuck. I was out near the turnout by the Voyageur Inn barn when out of the corner of my eye I saw something walking along the outside of the fence. It finally saw me and took off toward the barn, darting into a hole near the corner. I’d never noticed the hole before. A few days later I saw him again coming out of the hole. When he saw me, he took off and hid behind a large rock. Eventually he decided that his den was the place to hang out until we were gone and he hightailed it back.

A mink peers from under a woodpile. (Photograph by Betty Murcko) A mink peers from under a woodpile. (Photograph by Betty Murcko) When I was young, there were no woodchucks on Mackinac. About 25 or so years ago, they were introduced by humans and have been living here ever since.

Woodchucks are actually the largest squirrels in the Great Lakes region, being about two feet in total length, with its short tail being only about a quarter of that length. These rodents are great diggers, excavating burrows in well-drained soil on hillsides or embankments usually, dug upwards so the water doesn’t run in. It lives mainly on grasses and herbs. Unlike squirrels that bury food for the winter, the woodchuck is a true hibernator, lowering its body temperature to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit and spending most of the cold time from October to April sleeping away in its den.

Two of our weasels have been sighted fairly frequently this summer. River otters are the largest of the weasels in our area, with a total length of up to 51 inches (about a third of that is their muscular tail). They have been seen in the harbor and around the lakeshore here. Even though they are called river otters, they can happily live in lakes, as long as the water is clean, there is enough to eat, and they find a place to call home. Otters don’t tolerate polluted water, as they are on the top of the food chain and contaminants concentrate in their tissues. Having otters around indicates that our waters are quite clean. Otters, unlike beaver, are carnivores, eating fish, mollusks, crayfish, reptiles, small mammals (rodents), and eggs, all of which Mackinac Island and the Straits of Mackinac can supply. In many places, otters make their dens in the soft, muddy banks of a river, but since we do not have muddy banks, they use other structures, such as where the docks and the land come together, unused outbuildings, underneath barns, or any likely structure near the water.

The other weasel sighted is the otter’s smaller cousin, the mink, who is about a third to a half as big as an otter. Like the otter, they spend a good bit of their time in and around water, and one of their favorite foods is crayfish, although they like frogs, small mammals, some small fish, ducks, and other waterfowl. A few years ago someone took a picture of a mink dragging a three-foot garter snake along a road. It is not uncommon to see them around town. A friend took some video of a mink coming out of the lake and bounding up into the woods not far from Arch Rock.

One characteristic both these weasels have is delayed implantation. Once they mate, the fertilized egg does not implant into the uterus of the female until the conditions are right, to insure that the young are born in the spring when food is more abundant. This is usually determined by day length (photoperiod). I guess this is what is called planned parenthood.

The last mammal encounter occurred a couple of weeks ago while returning from a ride with a friend. Coming down Sugarloaf Road near Oneota Trail, a whitetailed deer suddenly made an appearance, to which my horse objected. Grey, my horse, decided that a quick turnaround was the thing to do, and I didn’t make it with him. Like the good boy he is, he stood as I regained my feet, but I could feel the pounding of his heart from the end of the reins. The deer was long gone, but it took me another few minutes to convince my horse that all was well.

I understand that there have been several deer encounters with private and rental horses that were not positive. Up until about six years ago, there were no free-ranging white-tailed deer on Mackinac. Occasionally, one or two would come over on the ice or swim from the other Islands, but they never seemed to remain, either taken by coyotes or they left on their own accord. We now have a population of deer that seems to be growing. Several fawns have been born, and, not infrequently, three deer have been seen in the cemetery or jumping on to Annex Road from Coffee Trail. While driving in a pony cart, one spikehorn casually walked across Leslie Avenue behind us. While it is interesting to see them, we may find that their expanding population may cause problems with horses, and may destroy some of our beautiful wildflowers.

Speaking of mammals, has anyone seen any red fox? I haven’t encountered one in several years.

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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