Woodchuck Facts – Did You Know that Woodchucks can Climb Trees?

Woodchuck Facts – Did You Know that Woodchucks can Climb Trees?

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see a woodchuck perched up in this tree! Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs,  are actually a member of the squirrel family.  With that in mind, it’s not as much of a surprise that they would spend some time in trees. They are the largest sciurid in their range (which covers all of Minnesota, most of the eastern half of the United States, and much of Canada). Their bodies are actually well suited for digging, so many people often find them in their yards – often wrecking havoc on their gardens. For this reason, groundhogs are often considered pests. They are generally herbivorous, eating vegetables, grasses, and berries, but will also munch on insects and grubs. Woodchucks dig burrows, and use them for sleeping, raising young, as an escape when threatened, and for hibernating. I often see groundhogs near my own garden, but this photo (taken in 2007) was the first time I had seen one in a tree. This was certainly one of the more unique encounters I have had with Marmota monax. Random Woodchuck Facts Woodchucks are also called groundhogs, whistle-pigs, and land-beavers Their weight ranges from 5 – 10 pounds Their ears fold down to keep dirt and debris out out of their ear openings while underground. Woodchucks emit a shrill whistle when they are alarmed (giving credence to their common name of whistle-pig!) Woodchucks usually don’t go farther than a few hundred yards from their burrows, and escape there for protection. Groundhogs hibernate through the cold winter months (they are a true hibernator!) In addition to being able to climb and dig, woodchucks can also...

Red Squirrel: a Curious Boundary Waters Nuisance

Red Squirrel: a Curious Boundary Waters Nuisance

If you have been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, you surely recognize this little guy. There seems to be at least one present at every campsite, if not several.  They tend to make themselves known to you – red squirrels often voice their irritation with me for invading their space by perching in a conifer at about my eye level and chattering loudly in protest. When they are not engaged in this activity, I often see them chasing each other through camp or munching on cones, leaving the shredded remains piled below them.  However, speaking of shredded remains… Red squirrels are intelligent creatures, and are not shy about checking out your gear (as seen in the photo above). If your equipment is piled on the ground, expect that they will hop over and check it out. I’m sure that they are able to either pilfer food from many campers, or that they are given handouts by well-meaning visitors (a practice that is not recommended). Either way, red squirrels in the BWCA are generally not afraid of people and curious about what you have brought them. One year, for example, we had our bag of food hanging in a tree while we went out for a canoe ride. Yes, it was hung properly – at least 10-15 feet off the ground, at least 5-8 feet away from the tree, and hanging at least 4-6 feet down (I’ve heard many different opinions on exactly how many feet off the ground and away from the tree and branch you are supposed to hang food, but we follow these rough estimates. Sometimes the area trees don’t offer you a perfect scenario). Anyway, we thought we had outsmarted the critters by hanging our bag while we were out. You can imagine our surprise when we came back to find a pile of shredded blue chunks of plastic material!  It turns out that some enterprising squirrel had made an impressive leap to our bag, or scaled down the rope, and was perched on it slowly chewing his way to our food! Lucky for us he had only gotten some nuts, but we had to come up with another bag to store our food in the rest of the trip. Red squirrels are about half the size of gray squirrels and are found in nearly all of Minnesota, but are most common in coniferous areas. Natural food they eat includes acorns, seeds of conifers (in the cones), mushrooms, maple seeds, and more. They often cache food for use in the winter. Red squirrels are predated on by cats, coyotes, foxes, hawks, weasels, marten, and more (Here is a great video of a pine marten going after a snowshoe hare in the BWCA!). As demonstrated by their loud chattering, tail flicking, and foot stomping, red squirrels are very territorial and will let you know when you have invaded their space. Related articles: Packing Food for a Trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness A Squirrel Tale, in Which I Also Shoot a Deer Planning a Trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness...

Ruffed Grouse – Bonasa umbellus

Ruffed Grouse – Bonasa umbellus

If you have ever walked along trails in the woods in northern Minnesota, you have likely spooked a Ruffed Grouse, sending it flying away in a sudden explosion of sound. It is very easy to walk right past these birds and never see them unless you scare them up, due to their coloration. As you can see in the photo above, they blend in very well. The Ruffed Grouse is a popular game bird in Minnesota, and are similar in size to a small chicken (about 12″ tall and weighing roughly 1.5 pounds).  They are found in roughly the eastern two thirds of the state, with a preference for aspen forests and early succession mixed deciduous woods. Both males and females have a short crest on their heads, although the males’ crest is slightly larger. Their tails appear rounded in flight. Male Ruffed Grouse are often shown in photos displaying their large neck ruffs, which is a courtship display. Along with displaying their neck ruffs, Ruffed Grouse are known for drumming during spring courtship. The males find drumming logs – a fallen log on which they can beat their wings in rapid succession, producing a low, quick drumming sound. I often feel the drumming before my ears register it; it starts out as a slow thumping and then speeds up. Follow this link to view a video from the Minnesota DNR of a Ruffed Grouse drumming. The sound is produced by air being compressed under the birds’ wings. The males drum in hopes of attracting a female to mate with. Males may mate with multiple females, and do not participate in raising the young. In Minnesota, the peak of mating season is late April. Ruffed Grouse eat mostly plant matter – they prefer the buds and twigs of aspen, and also eat leaves, catkins, ferns, fruits, insects (the primary food of the chicks) and acorns. Many animals prey on Ruffed Grouse, including Great Horned Owls,  Northern Goshawks, Canada lynx, foxes, fishers, and bobcats. In general, however, the Ruffed Grouse is a short-lived bird; few make it past the age of three. Once grouse are no longer chicks, they are generally loners (except during the mating season). We happened across this inquisitive lone Ruffed Grouse on a trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area...

Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) – Food and Cover for Wildlife

Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) – Food and Cover for Wildlife

Beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta) is an excellent source of food for wildlife. This shrubby, deciduous plant provides browse for deer and moose in the form of twigs, leaves and buds, and for many species of wildlife (and humans!) in the form of hazelnuts. The edible nuts are a great source of fat, fiber, and protein. The plants also provide great habitat for animals in the form of shelter – turkey, grouse, pheasants, and woodpeckers all utilize beaked hazelnut for both food and shelter. This plant tends to be shorter than 15 feet, and prefers dry woodlands and forest edges. It can grow on the edges of wet areas, but prefers rich, well-drained soils. The roots of beaked hazel send up lateral plants, which compete with other plants in the area for light and moisture. These roots also help to reduce erosion, so beaked hazel is a great plant for both landscaping purposes and as a wildlife attractant! You can find the nuts in late summer, but at this point they will still be green (but edible). The nuts are normally found in clusters of three, and each nut is surrounded by a shell. When left to mature, the nuts will turn brown.  They need to be cracked open out of their shells in order to be eaten – humans can use nut crackers or similar tools, but wildlife must work their way through the shells on their own. Wild hazelnuts can be collected and used in many recipes, including roasted hazelnuts, various types of stuffing with hazelnuts, various recipes with wild rice and hazelnuts (Minnesota classics, to be sure!) , wild nut soup, and...

Wild Plantain – a Common, but Useful, Backyard Weed

Wild Plantain – a Common, but Useful, Backyard Weed

The wild plantain is a very common weed, found in most yards in North America. There are three species of plantain found in Minnesota: broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), blackseed plantain (Plantago rugelii), and buckhorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata). Blackseed plantain is the only one of the three that is native to Minnesota. It looks very similar to broadleaf plantain, which is the most common species, but you can tell them apart by pulling the plant out of the ground. Blackseed plantains have a purple tinge at the base of their petioles.     Plantains are a low, short plant with wide, round leaves that have parallel veins.  Plantains grow well in compacted soil, and can be found in dry soils, lawns, fields, and roadsides. We have them in our own Minnesota backyard, and I’ve even seen it along trails and at campsites in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In addition to being easy to recognize, wild plantains have an abundance of uses. The leaves can be used for pain relief; chew them up and put the mush directly on a bee or insect sting, or crush them and put them on a rash or wound. Wild plantains are edible, and can be used in salads, as a potherb, and as tea. The tea is mild tasting, high in vitamins A and C, and useful as a remedy for diarrhea, and relieving a cough. Young leaves are a good addition to salads, or blanched and sautéed with butter and garlic. Related articles: – Wild Edibles: Wild Plantain...

The Destructive Forces of Forest Tent Caterpillars

The Destructive Forces of Forest Tent Caterpillars

This past weekend at the cabin in northern Minnesota, we witnessed the destructive capabilities of a munching army of forest tent caterpillars. Masses of them covered every surface, their hairy bodies writhing in search of leaves. If you stood still and listened, you could hear the sounds of them – crunching on leaves and dropping feces to the ground. They would descend from the trees and land on your clothes, or creep their way up you if you were brave enough to sit down amongst them. It was difficult to go outside the cabin without tracking at least one back in. Outbreaks of forest tent caterpillars (Malacosoma disstria Hubner) such as this one occur periodically in northern regions. According to the Forest Service, large outbreaks in the Lake States typically last for around 3 years and then diminish. Forest tent caterpillars (FTCs) prefer broadleaved trees, such as oaks and aspens.  We noticed that the FTCs paid particular attention to basswoods; entire trees had the majority of their leaves removed. The remainders of the leaves resembled skeletons, as they basically consisted of the stem and the center vein of the leaf. There is one generation of FTC per year. Larvae are small, black, and hairy, and appear around the time of the emergence of leaves in the spring. Colonies of larvae stay together as they molt and grow; over time they develop blue lines along the sides of their body and a series of white spots on their back. During molting periods and when resting the larvae congregate together in a silken mat in the crowns of trees. As they grow older, the location of the mat that they create may move lower in the crown or onto the trunk. When full grown, the caterpillars are roughy 2 inches long. The adult moths emerge from cocoons roughly two weeks later, and are tan-colored and nocturnal. They live for approximately 5 days and deposit egg masses around twigs during this time. Larvae will emerge from these egg masses the following spring. Their populations can be negatively impacted by early summer weather, a cold or damp spring, parasitic wasps and flies, starvation, and viral disease. In Minnesota, the native large gray parasitic fly, Sarcophaga aldrichi, becomes more abundant in response to FTC outbreaks. This fly is harmless, but irritating. It is known as “the friendly fly” because it will land on anything, including people, and is difficult to shoo away. If you have difficulty simply ignoring the writhing masses of FTCs that have invaded your property, you can try to control them by removing and destroying egg masses from trees. My personal notion is that sometimes we can just live with and tolerate other species instead of eradicating them simply because we find them irritating. The FTCs make for some good stories, at least! –...