Search this site or the web        powered by FreeFind
  Site search Web search



Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

This article has been provided in partnership with:

Boundary Waters

Wildlife 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 southern Ontario.


  • 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 voluntary muscles.
  • 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 swallow water.
  • Beavers can hold their breath for 20-30 minutes and swim for up to half a mile underwater.

Black Bear

  • 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, and berries.
  • 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 distances.
  • The helmets of Britain's Buckingham Palace guards are made of Black Bear fur.

River Otter

  • 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 Squirrel

  • 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 humans.
  • Piles of pinecone scales under a Red Squirrel's favorite feeding station can be three feet deep and up to 20 feet long.

Short-Tailed Shrew

  • 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 U.S. 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.

Common Loon

  • 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 states combined.

Bald Eagle

  • 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.

Pileated Woodpecker

  • 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 - carpenter ants.
  • 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 Jay

  • 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 surface.
  • 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 grip.

Ruffed Grouse

  • 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 bellowing bull.
  • 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 juices.
  • Females remove enough blood in a single bite to double their weight.
  • Mosquitoes seem to be attracted to dark blue colors. Blue jeans aren't a good choice of clothes (besides, they take too long to dry.)

Collective Nouns

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

--article courtesy of

Wildlife of the BWCA Wildlife List

Free Shipping & No Sales Tax on $40 or More!
Your Banner Could be Here