The remarkably early warm-up and meltdown this year may have us all thinking spring, but it’s worth remembering that this is still the leanest time of year for most of our wildlife. Winter is …
The remarkably early warm-up and meltdown this year may have us all thinking spring, but it’s worth remembering that this is still the leanest time of year for most of our wildlife. Winter is always a survival challenge for wildlife here in the North Country, even in an exceptionally mild winter like we’ve experienced to date.
I was reminded of that the other day when what appeared to be a female pine marten showed up to “feast” on the freeze-dried remains of a deer rib cage I had hung out by our bird feeders months earlier. Even when we’ve done the best we can while butchering our deer each fall, there are always bits of meat and fat that still remain, and everything from jays to chickadees to woodpeckers will spend weeks making sure nothing is left behind.
But come later March, even what little the birds couldn’t get was apparently enough to interest a neighborhood pine marten. It’s been months since I’d seen a pine marten around the house, so I was happy to see her even as I recognized that her interest in the by-now-thin-pickings of the deer carcass was indicative of the hunger that faces many smaller predators here come late winter.
As a female, she’s in need of more food this time of year, since the fertilized embryos she’s been carrying since the fall, finally implant right about now, so she’s presumably eating for more than one. Pine martens actually breed in the fall, but the fertilized eggs don’t implant in the womb until late winter or early spring, so the kits are born in the spring. This phenomenon, known as delayed implantation, is actually quite common among mammals, with bears being among the best known.
With pine martens, the young take just 27 days, on average, from the time they implant until they’re born. As the time to give birth approaches, the female is actively scouting out a nest site, which is typically in a mature tree cavity, often one left over from something large, like a pileated woodpecker.
I assume this particular pine marten was a female based on size, although this isn’t a foolproof method by any means. As with most members of the weasel (Mustelidae) family, females are somewhat smaller than males, although there’s plenty of overlap within the range of variability.
In general, they’re about the size of short-legged house cat, with a dark, fluffy tail that’s about a third their body length.
They prey on just about anything they can catch, but are known as deadly predators of red squirrels, and chipmunks in the warmer months. Given the abundance of red squirrels around our bird feeders right now, I wish there were a few more hungry pine martens around.
While pine martens are fairly large, they are small enough to become prey themselves at times, which is why they always seem so alert. Larger members of the weasel family, like fishers, will kill and eat martens, as will bobcats, and even large hawks and owls. Our recent visitor was certainly keeping a close eye out for threats the entire time. She’d tug at some hunk of dried-up meat or gristle, then stop and look around intently. In nature, only the largest and most aggressive of predators can truly relax.
Life in the wild isn’t easy, but at least this hungry marten probably isn’t hungry anymore. After watching the marten repeatedly return to our deer carcass, I pulled out the last bag of venison scraps that I’d hadn’t yet put out for the birds over the winter. With the cold season apparently coming to an end, I stuck the whole bag out on top of the rib cage, which the marten quickly turned into a major windfall. Life in the wild is still a challenge, but at least this marten won’t have to worry about hunger pangs for a while.