Wildlife in Ontario's Sunset Country (Part 1)

Learn about the critters that live in the Boreal
Gerry Cariou
By Gerry Cariou

Gerry Cariou is the Executive Director of Ontario's Sunset Country.

Last Updated: December 2, 2020

It's a Wild Place!

Have you ever wondered about what kinds of birds and animals live in the Boreal forest of Ontario's Sunset Country? Well if you have, or even if you have not, this story is the first in a series of stories that summarize the major animal and bird species (in addition to other critters) that call the Boreal forest home. From the largest animals such as moose to the smallest like voles and mice, every creature of the woods is integral to the healthy functioning of the Boreal forest ecosystem. There are predators and there is prey, all intertwined into a circle of life that binds them together. If we've missed any creature of significance in this article, let us know and we'll add them to the list.

This is part one of a multi-part series of articles and focuses on the biggest mammals you might see in the Boreal.

A large bull moose eating water plants. Photo: Wabakimi Wilderness Outfitters

Large Mammals

Moose: The Canadian moose (Alces americanus) is an iconic symbol of the Boreal and easily the largest of any mammal up here. They range across most of Sunset Country but are much more concentrated in the northern half of the region. Moose are preyed on by wolves while calves are targeted by both wolves and bears. Because of their large size, moose require a lot of food and therefore, must roam far and wide to find it. Their extremely long legs are adaptations for walking through the deep snows and for escaping predators. Moose can run fast when they want to. If you're lucky, you may see one off the side of the road or along the shoreline while fishing. Keep a safe distance and never antagonize or stress the animal by chasing it in a boat. 

Size: Moose can range in size an average weight of between 700-800 pounds. Large bulls tip the scales close to or even over 1,000 pounds.

Diet: Moose eat on average around 70 pounds of food per day and their diet consists of a mix of aquatic plants, young tree shoots and other, non-grass vegetation.

Range: Can be found across Sunset Country but are in higher concentrations in the northern half of the region.

Whitetail Deer: Our most plentiful large mammal is whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and they are distributed across most of Sunset Country except in the farther northern regions. Towns and cities here have resident populations of whitetail deer - some cities like Kenora - have hundreds of "urban" whitetails that live within the city boundaries their entire lives. Deer are herbivores and eat just about any vegetation they find palatable. Those that live in the cities and towns also gladly accept handouts but feeding them is not recommended.

Size: Whitetails can vary in size by a lot and in our region, they are on average larger than those in more southern climates which is primarily an adaptation to the cold. Does usually weigh between 150-175 pounds with the giant bucks tipping the scales at over 300. 

Diet: Deer are herbivores and can eat up to 2,000 pounds of vegetation annually. They have specialized stomachs allowing them to digest certain types of food depending on the time of year and what is available. Shoots, flowers, forbs and near people, fruit, hay and corn are staples.

Range: Whitetail deer are a very common sight across the populated areas of Sunset Country especially in the southern half of the region. If you visit, you will definitely see a lot of deer on your trip.

Black Bear: Another fairly common sight for tourists to Sunset Country are black bears (Ursus americanus). It is estimated Ontario has a population of around 150,000 bears of which half that population likely resides in the northwestern part of the Province. Black bears are powerful animals but largely survive on a vegetarian diet although they will eat almost anything. Never approach or try to feed these creatures as it could end up badly for you, especially if a sow thinks you are a danger to her cubs. There are several colour phases of black bears including the common black colour, they can be brown, cinnamon or even a blonde colour although that is quite rare. Some black bears have white spots, almost always located in their chest areas.

Size: Like deer, black bears vary in size with some large male boars weighing over 500 pounds! The average size though for a male is around 300-350 pounds and for sows, between 150 and 250 pounds although some mature sows weigh over 300.

Diet: Bears are omnivores meaning they eat a variety of food types including berries, grasses, roots, insects and meat. Since they hibernate in the winter, the spring, summer and fall are dedicated to eating so they can survive the winter off stored fat reserves. Bear are significant predators of moose calves and whitetail fawns in the spring.

Range: Bears range across the Sunset Country region although the larger populations tend to be further south as there is better forage and the growing season is slightly longer. You have a reasonably good chance of seeing a bear on your trip but remember to enjoy them from a safe distance.

Whitetail deer are a common sight in communities across Sunset Country

Red Fox: Another frequent sight in Sunset Country are red foxes (Vulpes vulpes). While the coats of these intelligent creatures are most often red with white on the chest or and the tip of the tail, colour phases can be a darker grey and sometimes even black, but these are quite rare. Foxes are very cagey and have excellent hearing which makes them deadly hunters. 

Size: Red foxes are relatively small animals which helps with their need for stealth while hunting. In most cases, these animals are around 3 to 3.5 feet long with a weight of between 15-20 pounds but larger animals do exist, and some may weigh more depending on the type and availability of food.

Diet: Foxes eat a variety of foods including roots and berries but in most cases, they prefer small rodents or other small mammals. Extremely intelligent foxes living near human populations such as farms are definitely a threat to chickens and the like. Hence the saying "that's like the fox guarding the henhouse" can be easily explained. 

Range: Red foxes are very successful breeders and they can range across all regions of Ontario's Sunset Country. Each fox has what is known as a "home" range which in most cases, they stay in their entire lives. 

Timber Wolves (Gray Wolf): Wolves (Canis lupus) are a relatively rare sight in Sunset Country despite our healthy populations, they generally avoid people at all costs. You are more likely to see a "lone wolf" over a pack of them although during the winter months, sighting a pack of wolves on lake ice happens more frequently. Wolves are social animals living in packs and working together, they are efficient predators of larger mammals such as deer, woodland caribou and moose. Wolves have no natural predators but their population rises and falls with the availability of prey. 

Size: Timber wolves vary greatly in size with large males weighing 150 pounds or more. Females are much smaller weighing between 80-100 pounds. 

Diet: As carnivores wolves prefer meat over all other foods and prey mostly on larger mammals such as deer which they work together to take down. In a pinch, wolves will also eat smaller mammals when available or even berries when they can't find meat.

Range: Across Ontario's Sunset Country.

Woodland Caribou: Now a protected species, woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are a rare sight and you'll likely only see one if you are in a remote area such as a northern fly-in outpost. Economic activities, especially forest and mining have resulted in significant habitat disturbances in some areas and this is the species' major threat. Excellent swimmers, woodland caribou prefer the rough side of the boreal and survive on a variety of vegetation. This is the only deer species where the females and males both grow antlers.

Size: Woodland caribou are a medium-sized ungulate weighing between 150 pounds for females up to 325 pounds for large males. They stand between 4 and 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Caribou can have large antlers in some cases close to 3 feet long.

Diet: Caribou range far and wide and consume what is available in an area at the time of year they are browsing. Winter diets can include bark and lichens while in summer, grasses and mosses are added to the mix along with readily available lichens.

Range: Woodland caribou are found in northern, remote sections of Sunset Country all the way up to the arctic tundra. Your chance of seeing one is slim so if you do, consider yourself very lucky!

Red Fox are beautiful and highly intelligent mammals. Photo: Brad Chambers

Canadian Lynx: Our most common version of a "big cat" up here are the beautiful Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis). An efficient predator year-round, lynx have many adaptations that help them survive in the Boreal. Consider yourself lucky if you do see one as they are shy and stealthy. It's a real treat when you get to see a mother and young, generally the only time you'll see them in a group. A lynx looks similar to a bobcat but lynx have some notable differences including hips well above their shoulders, back legs that are noticeably longer than their front legs, larger fur-covered feet, fewer spots and longer ear tufts. While there are some bobcats living in the southern part of the region, it is unlikely that when here, what you are seeing is anything but a Canadian Lynx.  

Size: Males are slightly larger than females around 2.5 to 3.5 feet long and weighing approximately 20-30 pounds. Females are about 20% smaller.

Diet: Lynx are strictly carnivores preying on snowshoe hares, small rodents and in Sunset Country ruffed grouse. On occasion, they will eat reptiles and insects. Lynx have also been known to take down small or injured whitetail deer on occasion although this is rare. Their numbers generally rise and fall with the availability of prey.

Range: Across Sunset Country often living in thick, remote patches of Boreal away from human development. 

Cougar: Extremely rare in Northwestern Ontario, cougars are much larger than lynx and therefore much more dangerous animals. While their numbers have dwindled over the past decades, there are a number of sightings every year. If you see a cougar, keep your distance and consider yourself extremely lucky. These big cats are a definite threat to humans in certain instances so respect that and act accordingly. 

Size: Males are much larger than females averaging 6 to 6.5 feet in length with the largest up to 8 feet long. Females are usually 5 to 5.5 feet long so still big! Males can weigh as much as 180 pounds although most are around 125-140 pounds while females are weigh between 80-100 pounds. At full speed, a cougar can run up to 80 km/h so running away is not really an option. 

Diet: Cougars compete with wolves for large mammals such as whitetail deer and moose. They will also eat smaller rodents, snowshoe hare and grouse. 

Range: In thick patches of Boreal where moose and whitetail deer are readily available. When prey numbers are down cougars move closer to populated centers in search of prey. 

So that's the end of part 1 of a series of articles on the animals, birds and other critters that live in the Boreal forests of Ontario's Sunset Country. Look for part 2 coming soon...

Your trip to the Boreal includes seeing wildlife but also, beautiful scenics like this!