Eighty species of mammal inhabit Minnesota. Those you are most likely to encounter are raccoon, eastern cottontail, various squirrels and chipmunks, and white-tailed deer, all of which are common throughout the state—even in the Twin Cities.
About seven thousand moose lumber across the northern tier of the state, the majority of them in the northeast corner. While spotting a moose is a distinct possibility, you’ll be far luckier to see any of the few dozen elk that call Minnesota home. Once common in the state, the only remaining herd—about 40 strong—lives near Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, though others wander down from Canada into the far northeast counties and some have begun to spend much of the year south of the border.
The occasional caribou, also once common in northern Minnesota, still slips across the border from Canada, but there are no more breeding populations.
Black bear are common in the northern half of the state, with the population having risen to nearly 30,000 in recent years. Some of Minnesota’s black bears are actually colored a light brown, but this is just a minor variation; they are still the same species. Visit the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary near Orr for a guaranteed close encounter with a wild Ursus americanus.
Three big cats—lynx, bobcat, and mountain lion—roam the state’s northern forests, but are rarely seen. Also count yourself lucky if you spy a badger, river otter, pine marten, fisher or gray wolf.
As a result of habitat diversity, well over 400 species of bird have been recorded in Minnesota, with 312 of them residents or regular visitors. No species typifies Minnesota more than its official state bird, the common loon, which is prevalent in the northern two-thirds of the state. Other common Minnesota waterbirds include mallards, Canada geese, great blue heron, great egret, black-crowned night-herons, and double-crested cormorant.
Red-tailed hawks and 30 species of warbler (24 in the northeast) are some of the defining forest species, and the state’s northern forests are home to many great gray owl and boreal owl. The Lake Superior shore attracts herring gulls and many species of migrating hawks. Arctic species like gyrfalcon and snowy owl migrate to northern Minnesota each winter. The most common birds on the prairie are savannah sparrow, western meadowlark, and bobolink.
Sandhill crane, bald eagle, osprey, and greater prairie chicken all came very close to disappearing from Minnesota, but thanks to ongoing habitat restoration, reintroduction, and other environmental projects, they have been saved. The first three are thriving again (over two dozen pair of bald eagle even nest in the Twin Cities metro area) and sightings are actually quite common in much of the state these days.
The prairie chicken is still very rare, only hanging on naturally in the northwest and a couple of spots along the Minnesota River where it was recently reintroduced. Sharp-tailed grouse is another species whose numbers have been dramatically reduced, but they still converge to mate on over 200 dancing grounds in the north of the state each spring.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Most of Minnesota’s reptiles and amphibians are found in the southeast corner, which has the warmest climate, but many species, such as the northern leopard frog, snapping turtle, and common garter snake, range across the entire state. Most survive the winter freeze by burrowing below the frost line or hibernating at the bottom of lakes and streams.
Seventeen of the state’s 29 species of reptiles are snakes. Largest is the brown-and-yellow gopher snake, which can grow in excess of six feet and is most common in grasslands along the St. Croix, Mississippi, and Minnesota Rivers. Gopher snakes, as well as the slightly smaller fox snake, which has a similar range, are non-venomous, but resemble timber rattlers and, because they sometimes vibrate their tails along the ground when frightened, are often confused with them. Actual rattlesnakes elevate their tails to rattle. The western painted turtle is by far the state’s most visible reptile, inhabiting just about every body of water with a log or rock to bask on.
Frogs account for half of Minnesota’s 21 amphibian species. One of the most interesting is the bullfrog, the United States’s largest frog species, reaching eight inches in body length. Adult bullfrogs eat almost anything they can swallow, including fish, snakes, turtles, rodents, birds, and other frogs. Though they naturally inhabit just the far southeast corner of Minnesota along the Mississippi River, there are now many healthy, introduced populations elsewhere in the state.
Just as exceptional are the eastern gray treefrog and Cope’s gray treefrog, nearly identical-looking species distinguished primarily by their calls. They can change their skin color to match their surroundings and are excellent climbers. Their range extends throughout most of the state, and on summer evenings they are commonly found clinging to cabins and other rural buildings waiting to snare insects that fly by.
The most common and widespread of Minnesota’s seven salamander species is the tiger salamander, which thrives in all kinds of habitats in all parts of the state. Black with yellow spots, they can reach lengths of over 13 inches, though eight to ten is more common. It is not the state’s largest salamander though; that honor falls to the wholly aquatic mudpuppy, which measures 13 to 16 inches.
While the state abounds in the usual game fish such as walleye, muskellunge, northern pike, bass, perch, bluegill, crappie, salmon, and trout, Minnesota’s waters have several other unique residents.
The largest of Minnesota’s 158 fish species is the lake sturgeon, a relic from the age of dinosaurs with no teeth or scales and, like sharks, cartilage instead of bone. Back in the 19th century, before they were nearly fished to extinction for the caviar market, anglers caught eight-foot, 300-pound sturgeon in Minnesota. They are making a slow comeback today, thanks to the Clean Water Act and strict fishing regulations, though few top out over 100 pounds.
They are found in many lakes and rivers (to the surprise of everyone a six-foot, 105-pounder washed up on the shore of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis in 1998), though the healthiest population is in Lake of the Woods. Not too far behind in the monstrous category are flathead catfish, which also sometimes exceed 100 pounds, though the Minnesota record catch is 70 pounds.
Some other fish that haven’t changed in millions of years are paddlefish and the longnose gar and shortnose gar, all with massive snouts. Paddlefish proboscises have sensors that detect the electrical impulses emitted by the microscopic plankton it eats. Though they can grow up to 140 pounds, in Minnesota, where they are rare, the largest are just over 50 pounds. The much smaller gar have long cylindrical snouts filled with razor-sharp teeth and skin so tough that it can’t be cut with a fillet knife.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition