Pine Martin

Did you know that Pine Martens are in the mustelid or weasel-like mammal family? Martens are related to mink, otters, badgers, wolverines, weasels, and skunks.

What do martens look like? Pine martens are very agile and can climb high up in the tree tops. They are slender with a pointed face and a bushy tail. Their tail helps them balance in the trees. Male martens are larger than females. They are about the same length as a house cat. These cute animals are between 19-27 inches long including their tail which is from 5-9 inches long. They only weigh between 1-3 pounds. Pine martens are brown with paler underparts and dark brown legs. They have small rounded ears and sharp teeth for eating meat.

Click on photo to enlarge

Where do martens live? Martens prefer old coniferous forests in Northern climates. The Border Country is an ideal habitat for them. Martens live in most of Canada, the north western US, the Rockies, and New England. Martens like old growth forests best because there are plenty of dead trees to find food and shelter in. An old forest has a thick canopy that provides shade for the ground cover which stays dark and damp. This environment is ideal for small animals such as voles and squirrels.

What do Pine Martens like to eat? Pine martens spend a lot of time searching the forest floor for rodents. Martens prefer to eat Red-backed voles. They will also eat other species of voles, mice, birds, flying squirrels, reptiles, and rabbits. Martens will eat honey, insects, conifer seeds, worms, eggs, and even berries.

How do Pine martens hunt? Martens are fast, strong, and agile. They have lots of energy and leap from tree to tree zig zagging to find flying squirrels. They also forage along the ground poking their heads into crevices in rock piles, hollow logs and holes in search of prey. Sometimes they stalk their prey like a cat and other times they pounce at them from above.

Did you know that Pine Martens stay active all year round even in the winter? Martens have special ways of keeping warm during the winter. They burrow into the snow which insulates them from the cold. Martens look for hollows in the snow around tree stumps and shrubs to find mice and other small mammals. They even have fur on the soles of their feet to keep them warm and to create a snowshoe effect when they walk!

Do Pine Martens live in groups? No, martens prefer to live alone. When adult martens run into each other they will often growl and show their teeth. They live in ranges of between 5-15 square miles. When there are plenty of voles and mice available the martens only need a small range, but when food is scarce they must cover more territory.

When are young martens born? Martens give birth to their young in March-April. They usually have litters of 2-5 young. The mother finds a suitable tree hollow or an abandoned den to raise her young in. The young martens nurse for the first 6 weeks of their lives. Adult martens begin to mate when they are 1 or 2 years old. They mate in the middle of summer. The young are born 8 months later. It is quite unusual for an animal of this size to have such a long gestation period. This 8 month delay is important because it allows the young to be born during the spring when there is plenty of food and the weather conditions are favorable.

Did you know that martens have been trapped for years for their beautiful soft fur? Pine martens almost became extinct due to the heavy amount of fur trapping in the 1700-1800s. The fur was traded to Europeans and was highly valued because of its warmth and its soft, luxurious feel. Trapping still goes on today in this country but with changing fashions and the increased awareness of the fur trade there is less demand for the marten fur. There are laws that protect the animals to prevent them from becoming extinct.

What are some other concerns facing the lives of pine martens? Martens have very few enemies besides humans. Logging has had major effects on marten populations. Since the martens rely on old growth forests for food and shelter, clearing the forests leaves the animals hungry and homeless. We are fortunate because here in the Border Country, because much of the forest is inaccessible for loggers and their trucks. Pine martens thrive here because of the large expanse of old growth trees and pristine wilderness.

What are some signs of marten activity? Look for marten scat along fallen logs or rock piles. The droppings are about 5-6 inches long and may contain bits of nuts and berries. Their footprints are less than 2 inches wide and show 5 toe pads around a rounded heel pad. You may be fortunate enough to see a marten jumping from tree to tree!

Sources Casey, D. 1988. The American Marten. Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. Stensaas, M. 1993. Canoe country wildlife: a field guide to the North Woods and Boundary Waters. Pfeifer- Hamilton, Duluth, MN. Whitaker, J.O.Jr. National Audobon Society field guide to North American mammals. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York.

Dave Freeman is the Executive Director of the Wilderness Classroom. Dave and Amy Freeman have traveled over 30,000 miles by kayak, canoe and dogsled through some of the world’s wildest places. National Geographic named the Dave and Amy Adventurers of the Year in 2014.

When the Freemans aren’t on expeditions or conducting school assemblies, they guide canoe, kayak and dogsled trips.

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