Whether canoeing the BWCAW, staying at an area resort or just sightseeing in our northeastern Minnesota wonderland, you are bound to see some of the wide variety of wild animals that call this area home. Besides the ducks, geese, songbirds, chipmunks, squirrels and seagulls you’ll probably see every day, a few other “critters” might greet you.
The bald eagle is the only eagle unique to North America. The scientific name (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) indicates a sea (halo) eagle (aeetos) with a white (leukos) head. The common name “bald eagle” dates from a time when “bald” meant “white,” rather than hairless.
Adult bald eagles are readily identified by their white heads and tails. The rest of the feathers are dark brown. Males and females are identical in color but females are larger. Males weigh 8-9 pounds and females weigh 10-14 pounds. Eagles are 3 to 3-1/2 feet long from beak to tail and have a wingspread ranging from 6 to 7-1/2 feet.
Bald eagles do not acquire their adult plumage until they are four to five years old. Until then, many of the feathers are partially white, contributing to a brown pattern with irregular white marks on the breast and wings. Eagles may live to be 25 to 30 years old.
A familiar sight in rivers, lakes and streams, beavers are the largest of all North American rodents. Three to four feet in length, beaver generally weigh between 40 and 95 pounds. Beaver have numerous enemies, but their biggest enemies in the northwoods are bears, wolves, and humans. Beaver fur is coveted because of color and its ability to shed water. Their fur is either golden or a dark brown, and there are actually two layers of fur.
Beaver lodges, more commonly called dams, are made of wood, mud, and branches. Lodges are built near low banks and creeks, and are built from the bottom up.
The beaver’s favorite food is tree bark, but will eat shrubs and insects as well in the summer, and twigs, leaves, roots and aquatic plants other times. Beavers mate in January or early February, and usually have four young, called kits.
The black bear is the smallest of all North American bear. The black bear usually weighs between 250 and 300 pounds and stands two to three feet at the shoulders, but can weigh up to 500 pounds. Coat color may vary from light brown to deep black. Originally found throughout Minnesota, it but now occurs only here in northern woodlands.
Bears live alone, the exception being when females are rearing their young, or when a large concentration of food bring them together. The black bear is omnivorous, eating anything that resembles food. Their diet consists of grasses, fruits, berries, buds or leaves, nuts, insects and their larvae, and small animals and carrion. A keen sense of smell is the bear’s strong point. Because of this, it’s a good idea to keep all food stored properly when camping.
The black bear does not truly hibernate, but goes through a period of dormancy in the winter during which it doesn’t eat. Female bears will give birth to between one and four young during January or February. At birth, cubs weigh eight to ten ounces and are hairless, but grow rapidly, weighing about five pounds by the time they leave the den, and 60 to 100 pounds at the end of their first year.
Most of the wild stories you might have heard about black bears are just that – stories. Black bears don’t have very good eyesight, and their hearing is fair at best. Most often, they will run as soon as they see or hear you, with the exception of a mother protecting her cubs.
A member of the weasel family, the fisher resembles a large mink, with grizzled dark brown fur that approaches blackish on the rump and tail. Agile and active predators, fishers prey upon mice, squirrels, snowshoe hare, and porcupines, but will also eat insects and berries.
Fishers are solitary animals, seeking out others only during the breeding season and when the young are with the female. Old timber stands are where fishers prefer to live, but any large area of continuous forest will do. If possible they will choose the edges of conifer stands when these are adjacent to stands of deciduous trees. For denning, fishers look for hollow trees and logs, rock crevices, old porcupine dens, abandoned beaver lodges in dry ponds, and slash piles.
Frogs and Toads
Stereotyped as the joy of little boys and the bane of little girls, frogs and toads are usually thought of as living in wet places such as swamps and wetlands. While it’s true that these are crucial to their life cycle, frogs and toads often become land dwellers, with some spending winter in the forest floor leaf litter or in a deep burrow below the frost line of an open grassland.
Frogs and toads have adapted to survive in a wide range of environments. Because of this, their presence is usually a good indication that the wetlands, grasslands, and forest where they live are being preserved, and water quality is good. Conversely, when frogs and toads disappear, or are deformed, it can mean the ecosystems that sustain them are ailing.
If you spend time around the water, you’re sure to see or hear the haunting cry of our state bird – the loon. Loons are water birds, only going ashore to mate and to incubate their eggs. Weighing on average about eight pounds, loons generally eat fish; sticklebacks, minnows, and small perch are among their favorites, and are known to remain submerged for several minutes while pursuing prey. They also eat aquatic insects like dragonfly larvae.
Loons defend large territories on freshwater lakes during the late spring and summer breeding season. Male and female loons often return to the same territories year after year. Loon nests are built very close to the water, and often on small islands.
Loons migrate from their freshwater homes to the seacoast, and live at sea during the fall and winter. They undergo a complete molt of their breeding plumage during the fall and are “dressed in drab” during the winter. Late in the winter they molt again, replacing their drab winter plumage with the eye-catching black-and-white breeding plumage that most birdwatchers and loon-lovers have come to know.
A few of you may be lucky enough to see a moose. A close cousin of the deer, moose are usually seen near or in the water. Dark brown and weighing in at 800-1,400 pounds, they are the largest mammal to be found in the northwoods.
Most of the year, moose are relatively silent animals. During the breeding season (called the rut), however, their silence is broken. Moose courtship is elaborate, consisting not only of intricate vocalizations but of elegant visual displays and subtle chemical stimuli that is still not fully understood.
Spring is the season of birth for the moose. By early May, last year’s offspring is now considered an unwanted intruder and is driven off by the cow as she seeks solitude in which to bring forth the next generation. The calf will attempt to reunite with its Mother, only to be rebutted repeatedly. Ultimately, the rejection is accepted, and the yearling will face the dangers of its world alone.
Solitary animals, the red fox is known for its rusty-red coat, white-tipped bushy tail and black legs. Here in Minnesota, variations on this standard coloring include nearly solid black, silver-black, and red bisected by dark bands across the back and shoulders. The average adult weighs 10 to 12 pounds, and stand 15″ to 16″ tall at the shoulder.
Red fox will eat a wide variety of foods, including snakes, fish, rats, mice, rabbits, birds, ground squirrels, insects, nutes, seeds and berries. Red fox always hunt alone, and hunt primarily during twilight and evening. Often food will will be hidden uneaten under litter or buried in a hole so it can be eaten later.
Red fox mate in mid-winter, with the female giving birth to from four to ten young, called pups, in early spring. Red fox dens can be up to 40 feet deep, and are often abandoned woodchuck or badger holes. But these dens are usually just used as nurseries, as red fox prefer to sleep in the open.
The most common of our big-game animals is the whitetail deer. Whitetail deer grow to three and a half feet tall with males weighing 75 to 400 pounds and females weighing 50 to 250 pounds. Whitetails are good swimmers and can run up to 40 mph. They mainly feed on twigs, sprouts, bark, and leaves. Antlers, found on males, consist of a main beam with prongs issuing from it. They grow, dry, harden, and are shed each year. Whitetails get their name for their large white tails. Their coloration is reddish brown in summer and blue-gray in winter.
In the spring, whitetail deer begin recovering from the food winter shortage. The doe give birth to the new year fawns, and bucks begin to grow their antlers for the next mating season. In the summer, the fawns begin to mature, while the bucks choose an area to roam with their bachelor groups. By fall, fawns are completely weaned from their mothers, and the bucks’ antlers are fully developed. In the winter, whitetail deer begin to herd in groups and bucks lose their antlers. Winter is often hard on the whitetail, with deep snow making finding food difficult and extreme cold killing mnay of the young, old, and weak.
The timber wolf is another of Minnesota’s misunderstood Often thought of as a man killer, there have been no verified reports of wolves killing humans. In fact, encounters which have ended in contact between wolves and humans have been rare. Most wolves are not dangerous to humans and there is a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a bee sting than being injured by a wolf.
A full grown timber wolf weighs between 70 and100 pounds. Powerfully built with steel-strong jaws, muscular legs, and large feet, the wolf is an efficient predator. The average wolf is mixed gray in color with yellowish sides and darker gray on the back, although individuals vary from almost solid black to buff-white.
A wolf pack is a family group consisting of a pair of breeding adults and their young of a year old or more. Only one female in a pack breeds each year. Individual packs have territories of 50 to 120 square miles, and the members of the pack usually restrict their hunting and feeding activities to that area. The timber wolves diet consists of a variety of large and small animals, but white-tailed deer make up about 80 percent of it. Beaver are often taken in the spring and summer, while deer, and a few moose, are taken more frequently in winter.