Secret life of pine martens
If you’ve had the opportunity to explore the trails this season, then you have probably seen a network of footprints decorating the blanket of snow around our valley. Although winter can seem quiet and lifeless, these footprints remind us that the winter environment is thriving with life, out on the hunt to find their next meal, searching for a springtime mate or simply enjoying a playful afternoon in the snow. With every footprint, these animals share a piece of their adventure with us.
But even in the open canvas of a fresh snowfall, there is one animal that rarely leaves a track—the American pine marten, or Martes Americana. About the size of a mink, the elusive pine marten has a long, slim body, pointy face, rounded ears and a large bushy tail. Like the other members of its family (weasels, fishers, mink), the pine marten wears a luxurious coat of fur and was nearly trapped to extinction for its fur during the 19th century. Luckily, due to successful reintroduction programs in various parts of the United States, pine martens have made a positive comeback through much of the U.S. Today, they are widely distributed through northern North America, with smaller populations stretching as far as northern New Mexico.
If you are itching to see one of these handsome creatures, then the first step is getting to know their habitat. The American pine marten prefers to live in old growth, mesic, conifer and mixed conifer forests. Late successional forests with a variety of structural diversity (woody debris, tree snags, multi-level canopies) provide the pine marten with suitable den sites, abundant hunting opportunities and help with thermal regulation in the cold winters. Pine martens are also commonly seen around riparian corridors adjacent to coniferous stands. Because of the marten’s specific habitat needs, the management of forests for timber harvest, especially when it reduces canopy cover or density of woody debris, can have serious impacts on the success of these animals.
It’s A Marten Life for Me
If you are able to find suitable marten habitat, then the next step in spotting a marten is understanding their lifestyle. Pine martens are usually solitary, territorial, nocturnal animals. Both males and females mark their home territory and will not allow another marten of the same sex into their territory. On average, male martens defend between 1 to 3 square miles and females defend up to 1 mile of territory. There are, however, exceptions to their solitary lifestyle. During mating season, between July and September, you may see martens in pairs. Pairs stay together only briefly, as martens are polygamous. After mating season, they are back on their own until females are joined by their offspring in early spring. Female pine martens have an unusual pregnancy. Embryonic implantation—the connection of the embryo to the uterus of the mother—is suspended until late winter (about 200 days). Once the embryo is implanted, active gestation lasts for only one month with females giving birth between March and late-April. Litters range from one to five kits, which stick with their mothers through the summer before heading out to find their own territory.
Lastly, if you are out looking for that marten, then look up and all around! Martens are fast and agile, quickly leaping from tree branch to tree branch. They are opportunistic hunters, eating what is in season and abundant, and may be seen foraging in hollow logs, crevices or debris piles. Voles are a year-round staple of the American marten’s diet, which becomes more variable in the summer, including fruit, insects and seeds. In fact, the American pine marten is thought to be an important seed disperser for some plants because seeds pass through the marten intact and can then germinate in their new location.
If, with all of this information about the American pine marten, you are one of the lucky few to catch a glimpse, then soak it all in because it might not happen again. Sit back and admire this lovely animal’s agility and secrecy as it jumps between the trees, disappearing into the forest once again.
Johanna Gundlach is an educator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She enjoys long walks through the forest, shared with her binoculars and a good field guide.