Trivial Pursuits by Steve Volkening
The Boundary Waters area is home to many fascinating creatures. Not
every visitor to the Canoe Country is fortunate enough to see a moose
feeding in a quiet bay or catch a fleeting glimpse of a timber
wolf. Yet most people recognize the more common animals such as
beavers, squirrels, and loons and know a little something about them.
I have enjoyed obscure and slightly oddball facts even before Trivial
Pursuit became a popular game a decade ago. As a history teacher, I
tried to enliven my classes with bits of trivia to spice up topics my
students considered to be boring. Not surprisingly, when I see former
students they tell me that they still remember the trivia far more than
the material from the textbooks.
Several years ago, I started to combine my fondness for trivia with
my love of the outdoors; especially the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Wilderness and Quetico
Provincial Park. I jotted down interesting little details, which I
had read earlier, about the animals I observe on my yearly canoe trips
on index cards. I stick these cards in my map case or dry bag with my
binoculars. Having this information handy heightens my enjoyment when I
see these animals. It occasionally impresses my paddling partners when I
mention some little-known detail. But, it never fails to reinforce my
admiration for the incredible diversity of the natural world.
What follows are some lesser-known facts about some common animals
which inhabit the Boundary Waters region of northern Minnesota and
- An adult porcupine can have 30,000 quills. These specially -
modified hairs are solid at the tip and base and hollow in the
middle. They are loosely attached to the skin and can be erected by
- Because these quills are hollow, porcupines are quite buoyant.
They can swim well when they have to.
- Each quill has a microscopic barb at the tip which expands with
the body heat of the victim it pierces. This makes it more difficult
to remove. Cutting off the tip of an embedded quill reduces the air
pressure inside and makes it easier to pull out.
- A porcupines favorite food is the inner layer of tree bark. It
also eats green plants such as skunk cabbage and clover.
- Moose are the largest member of the deer
family in the world.
- The legs of a moose are too long for them to graze. They must
kneel down to reach the ground. They browse mainly on shrubs, tree
leaves and bark, or water plants.
- The stomach of an adult moose can hold 112 pounds of food.
- Moose are strong swimmers and can cruise at speeds of 6 mph for up
to two hours. On land, they can run 35 mph in a charge.
- The antlers of a large male moose can spread for 7 feet and weigh
75 pounds. They begin growing in April, reach full size in August,
and are shed between February and March.
- A beaver's large incisor teeth never stop growing. If they were
not worn down by the beavers constant chewing, they would curve
inward and eventually pierce its skull.
- It takes only about three minutes for a beaver to cut down a five
inch thick tree.
- A beaver's hind foot is as large as a ping pong paddle. Of course,
it's fully webbed.
- In Alaska, some beaver dams are as tall as 17 feet and can stretch
for 100 yards. They are not nearly as big in the Boundary Waters.
- When swimming underwater, valves shut in their nose and ears to
keep the water out. A skin flap behind their lips closes around
their teeth so they can carry a branch in their mouth and not
- Beavers can hold their breath for 20-30 minutes and swim for up to
half a mile underwater.
- When bear cubs are born in the winter den, they are only the size
of a rat and can weigh as little as half a pound.
- Bears produce only one litter every other year.
- While bears are classified as carnivores (meat-eaters), most of
their diet comes from vegetation, such as twig, buds, grass, nuts,
- During their hibernation between November and April, bears loose
up to 30% of their body weight. When hibernating, they can reduce
their metabolic rate by 50%
- They may not look very fast, but bear can run 35 mph over short
- The helmets of Britain's Buckingham Palace guards are made of
Black Bear fur.
- Otters sometimes work together to drive schools of fish into the
shallows, where they are easier to catch.
- While chasing fish, otters can dive as deep as 40 feet and stay
under water for two minutes.
- Fish and crayfish, along with frogs and small mammals, make up
most of river otter's diet. They have a thick layer of mucus in
their intestines to protect them from sharp bones.
- Red squirrels are only half the size of Fox or Gray Squirrels.
- Ojibwa Indians called the Red Squirrel "ajdamo", meaning
"tail in the air".
- A Red Squirrel's primary food is pine seeds. They also eat bird
eggs, tree sap, and even amanita mushrooms, which are deadly to
- Piles of pinecone scales under a Red Squirrel's favorite feeding
station can be three feet deep and up to 20 feet long.
- The Short-Tailed Shrew is one of the most common mammals in all of
North America. However, it is not often seen because it spends most
of its life under the leaf litter.
- It is a good thing that this little shrew is only 3-5 inches long,
because it is a ferocious hunter. It can eat up to three times its
body weight in food in a single day.
- The Short-Tailed Shrew is the only poisonous mammal native to the
Its venom is strong enough to make a human ill for several days. It
paralyzes larger victims such as frogs, mice, and snakes with poison
in its saliva.
- It takes a loon almost a mile of running across the surface of a
lake to get airborne. Once in the air, it flies rapidly, with up to
250 wing beats per minute. Loons have been clocked at speeds up to
80 mph. (In comparison, ducks average 45-60 mph).
- When lakes freeze up in the fall, loons migrate to the ocean. They
molt their wing feathers while at sea and are unable to fly for
30-45 days until their feathers grow back.
- The bones of most birds are hollow or honeycombed to reduce
weight. Loons are built for diving, not flying. Their bones are
solid. This helps them submerge, but makes flying difficult.
- Loons feed by catching fish underwater. They can dive as deep as
200 feet. (Only penguins can dive deeper). While their average dive
is less than one minute, they can remain underwater for five to ten
minutes if they are startled.
- During the winter spent on the ocean, loons eat cod, herring, and
sea trout. They have a special gland behind their eyes which
excretes seawater into its nasal cavity.
- Loons in Minnesota weigh an average of 7-9 pounds, while New
England loons weigh up to 12 pounds.
- There are more loons in Minnesota than in the other Lower 47
- It takes 4 years for eagles to achieve the familiar white head and
tail with dark brown body.
- As they dive towards the water to grab a fish, Bald Eagles can
reach speeds of 150-200 mph.
- Eagles nests can be 7-8 feet across and 12 feet deep. Eagles
usually reuse their nests, adding more branches each year. Nests can
weigh up to two tons.
- Bald eagles fly as far as 200 miles in a single day during their
spring migration back to the Boundary Waters.
- With a two-foot wingspread, Pileateds are nearly as big as a crow.
- Its tongue is four times as long as its bill. It has a backward
facing barb on the tip which allows it to harpoon insects and grubs.
- Nicknamed the "logcock", Pileateds are often seen on the
ground breaking open rotten logs in search of its favorite food -
- Woodpeckers have two rear-facing and two front-facing toes, which
make it easier to cling to the side of a tree. (Most perching birds
have three forward toes and one rear toe).
- Canada Jays survive the long winters by gathering conifer seeds in
the fall. They glue the seeds together with their thick saliva and
store them away. Their strong memory helps them to find most of
their cached food.
- Canada Jays have earned their nickname "Camp Robber".
They are frequently seen around campsites. They are known to enter
tents and steal food. They also will land on a plate of food and
steal it right in front of your nose.
- Osprey are known as "Fish Hawks", and their entire diet
consists of fish.
- Some Indian tribes believed that osprey had an oily substance on
their body which attracted fish. If a fisherman rubbed their bait in
this oil, fish were said to be unable to resist it.
- Osprey don't dive headfirst after fish like pelicans do. Instead,
they plunge feet first. They can reach fish three feet below the
- An Osprey's feet are designed to capture and carry fish. They have
sharp barbs on the bottom to grasp slippery fish. They are able to
rotate one of its forward facing toes backwards to get a better
- During the mating season, the male makes a loud drumming noise by
rapidly beating their wings. It was once thought that the sound was
made by beating their wings against a hollow log.
- Part of their Latin name, "Bonasa", means "wild
bull." They got this name because their drumming sounded like a
- In the winter, Ruffed Grouse grow small horny fringes on their
toes. These growths acts like snowshoes and spread out their weight
so they don't sink through the snow.
- Only female mosquitoes bite. They need a meal of blood before they
can produce eggs. Males feed on nectar from flowers and other plant
- Females remove enough blood in a single bite to double their
- Mosquitoes seem to be attracted to dark blue colors. Blue jeans
aren't a good choice of clothes (besides, they take too long to
Many animals come together in groups. Some gather together only for
breeding or migration. Others live together permanently. Everyone knows
that the name for a group of wolves is "pack" and the
collective noun for a group of lions is "pride."
Only die hard trivia fans might know some of the lesser known terms.
Here are some to share around the campfire on your next canoe trip :
- skulk of foxes
- murder of crows
- kindle of rabbits
- convocation of eagles
- colony of frogs
- cast of hawks or falcons
- knot of toads
- unkindness of ravens
- gang of elk
- rafter of turkeys
- labor of moles
- siege of herons or cranes
- exaltation of larks