Wildlife in Ontario's Sunset Country (Part 2)

Small Critters of the Boreal
Gerry Cariou
By Gerry Cariou

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

Last Updated: March 6, 2024

Good things come in small packages!

In part one of our stories about wildlife in the Boreal, we focused on the large mammals that call the forests of Ontario's Sunset Country home. In part two, we'll continue our focus on mammals but we'll cut things down to size and highlight some of the many smaller mammals that inhabit the woods up here. While all of these animals are considered small when compared to the ones we featured in part one, some pack a tremendous punch for their size including one which is likely the most ferocious of any creature that inhabits the northern Boreal. More on that animal later in the article. Some of these smaller mammals are, unfortunately, primary food sources for the larger animals and predatory birds so their role in the Boreal ecosystem shouldn't be overlooked. 

Northern River Otter: Easily the comedian of the Boreal, northern river otters (Lutra canadensis) range across much of Ontario's Sunset Country. These playful creatures are excellent swimmers and don't stray far from the water's edge because this makes them easy prey for lynx and wolves. If you see an otter it's likely it will be an entire family unit and most likely, you'll be in a boat or if you're really lucky, on the shore near a lake or river. They may even put on a show for you. 

Size: Males otters are larger than females with a body length between 3 to 4.5 feet while females are between 3 and 4 feet long.

Diet: Primarily fish and freshwater crustaceans such as crayfish. Occasionally otters will eat small rodents and even birds if they can catch them.

Range: Across Ontario's Sunset Country near lakes and rivers. Otters spend over 80% of their time swimming.

Beaver: A true symbol of Canada and the Canadian wilderness (including on our nickel), beavers (Castor canadensis) are a very common sight in Sunset Country. Known for their industrious nature, beavers are constantly modifying the natural environments in which they live. They have a reputation for felling trees and building dams. Your chances of seeing one or more than one are almost guaranteed up here!

Size: Beavers are compact, stout animals with a length of between 3 and 3.5 feet and weigh between 35-65 pounds. They are part of the rodent family and with this size, are the second-largest rodent in the world and the largest in Canada.

Diet: Woody vegetation such as tree bark and young tree shafts make up the bulk of a beaver's diet during the winter as nothing else is generally available. They do not hibernate but store food underwater near the lodge they make of our sticks and mud. In summer, beavers switch to non-woody vegetation such as leaves, buds, water plants and underwater roots. They are constantly eating or in search of food to store in their beaver lodge - the only way they can survive through the long cold Canadian winters we have. 

Range: Beavers are distributed across Sunset Country in large numbers. They need to live near water so you'll see them in lakes, ponds or slow-moving rivers. Access to the forest cover for food is another key element they need as part of their habitat.

Porcupine: The porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is another industrious and relatively well-known creature across North America and you have a reasonable chance of seeing one while visiting Sunset Country. Despite their natural protection i.e. quills, porcupines are a favourite quarry of animals like lynx, fishers, gray wolves (timber wolves), and other predators who somehow figure out a way to get past the pointy defence.  

Size: Not overly large animals, porcupines grow between 1.5 to 2.5 feet long and most weigh about 15 pounds. Like the beaver, porcupines are considered to be part of the rodent family making them relatively large compared to most other rodents.

Diet: Like most members of the rodent family, porcupines are primarily herbivores and eat a variety of vegetation with the notable inclusion being pine needles - with a preference for needles from white pines.  They also eat leaves off shrubs and trees and a variety of Boreal herbs. Porcupines are known for chewing (and wrecking) man-made objects much to the chagrin of their owners. If you have a boat oar that has chew marks on it it is likely from a porcupine and not a beaver.

Range: Porcupine range across the Boreal forests of Ontario's Sunset Country. Your best chance is to see them off the side of the road.

Wolverines: In the opening paragraph it was mentioned that one of the smaller animals in the Boreal was also the most ferocious and the wolverine (Gulo gulo) certainly has that reputation. Known for driving off larger animals like bears and lynx from their kills, you can figure out this is an animal you don't want to mess with. Wolverines have been known to kill domesticated animals and even moose (although moose calves are the likely target). As ferocious as they are, it is highly unlikely you'll see one as they generally live a solitary life far away from human settlements. When you consider their reputation for ferocity, that's probably not a bad thing.

Size: Despite their ferocious nature, wolverines are only 2 to 3 feet long and most weigh between 15-25 pounds. They have very sharp teeth and long, sharp claws, features that support their reputation for nastiness. Avoid close contact at all costs!

Diet: Wolverines travel far and wide in search of food so they have large ranges. Mostly meat-eaters, wolverines hunt anything they think they can take down but their main source of food is carrion or kills they come across or by chasing off other predators. 

Range: Across Sunset Country but likely with higher populations in more remote and northern parts of the region. Male wolverines can have a home range of up to 250 square miles and they usually don't overlap with another male's range. There may be 2 or more females within the range of a male wolverine. Canada may have the world's largest population of wolverines. 

A beaver will slap it's tail on the water warning you to keep your distance!

Snowshoe Hare: Unfortunately for the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), it's the main prey item for many predators in the Boreal including predatory birds. They deal with this adversity by being prolific, with up to 4 litters of 2-4 bunnies a year - and they are fast - with broad hind feet and powerful muscles in their back legs that in some cases allows them to outrun their prey. Brownish in the summer, in winter, their coat turns to white, helping to camouflage them from predators. Still, much of a snowshoe hare's time is spent browsing and avoiding predators as about 40% of them are eaten. They have exceptional hearing and are adapted to run on top of the snow. 

Size: The snowshoe hare is small, between 14 and 20 inches long and weighing about 5-8 pounds. 

Diet: Hares are mostly vegetarians, surviving off a variety of grasses, ferns and clover. In winter, they eat sapling buds and even bark. One morbid thing is in tough times, snowshoe hares have been known to be cannibalistic! This, however, is rare.

Range: Across Northwestern Ontario primarily found in densely-forested habitats that offer places to hide and rear their young.

Mink: No longer sought after as much for its fur, mink (Mustela vison) are found in relatively large numbers in Ontario's Sunset Country. Despite this fact, consider yourself lucky if you see one. Mink are excellent hunters and you may see one on the shoreline while you're out fishing so watch for one out hunting crayfish or small fish at the water's edge.

Size: Sleek and slender would describe a mink as females grow to between 15 and 20 inches with males a little larger growing up to 25 inches long. They usually weigh less than 10 pounds. Mink have partly webbed feet helping them to swim when necessary. 

Diet: In addition to being big fish eaters, mink also consume insects and earthworms to supplement their diet. They are mostly carnivorous but will eat some vegetation.

Range: Trapping is no longer a major strain on mink populations with the fur market relying mostly on commercial mink farms. They range across Sunset Country and prefer pristine Boreal environments away from human settlements and activity.

Look closely at the rocky shorelines like this as mammals such as mink or even a fisher will often be searching for food

Fisher: Although you likely won't see one, fisher (Martes pennanti) are abundant in Northwestern Ontario and the Boreal forest provides a variety of food sources for them. If you're a porcupine, you don't want to meet up with a fisher. These brownish-coloured animals are mainly carnivores and they prefer to hunt at night, hence the reason it is unlikely that you will see one - but you never know!

Size: Not large animals females are approximately 2.5 feet long while males can go up to 3.5 feet long - much of it is tail. a fisher has retractable claws and excellent vision.

Diet: Mainly meat eaters especially porcupine, rabbits and rodents like squirrels, mice and voles. Fisher will eat vegetation on occasion. 

Range: Across Northwestern Ontario.

Pine Marten: Pine martens (Martes americana) are relatively numerous across Sunset Country and prefer dense, old-growth coniferous or mixed wood stands to live and raise their young. Beautiful in appearance and colour, your chances of seeing one are relatively good as they are active throughout the day time hours. These feisty little predators have a blackish-brown to yellowish and even auburn-brown fur that varies with the season and martens have a very "cute" face, Their fur was once highly sought after marketed as "sable".

Size: Pine martens are small, (less than 2 feet long) and weigh less than 5 pounds. 

 Diet: Pine martens eat a variety of foods including insects, mice, voles, squirrels, fish, crayfish, birds, ruffed grouse and even carrion. Martens also eat plants and especially berries such as raspberries and blueberries.

Range: Across Northwestern Ontario in densely wooded areas. Pine martens have relatively small ranges usually less than 3 square kilometres.

Striped Skunk: Easily the most recognizable of any of the small mammals in the Boreal is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). If one is in the vicinity, you may smell it before actually seeing it. Needless to say, keep your distance. Skunks are numerous and often live on the city/town outskirts where many a foolish dog has fell victim to their spray. Unfortunately for the pet's owners, it sometimes takes weeks for the smell to fully disappear. 

Size: Skunks are small, about 20-24 inches long and weighing about 5-7 pounds. Their scent glands are an extremely effective (but not foolproof) defence for this animal. The two white stripes on its back are a memorable pattern further warning most animals they should stay away.

Diet: Skunks are omnivores eating a variety of whatever is available. Insects, small mammals, birds, eggs, are all on the menu. A skunk will even eat carrion and many encounters with humans are a result of a skunk getting into the garbage. 

Range: Across Ontario's Sunset Country. 

Skunks are very recognizable mammals to most people. They range across Northwestern Ontario. Photo: Bryan Padron

Other Small Mammals of the Boreal

The animals featured in this article are just some of the ones that inhabit the Boreal forest of Ontario's Sunset Country. There are many others including:






And there are even several other species not identified here. The key take-away? A visit here is a trip to a landscape of green trees, clean, clear lakes and the setting for many species of mammals to live. It's an opportunity for visitors and residents to see these mammals and maybe even catch a big fish. Most sightings of animals up here are by people who visit on a fishing trip, a canoe expedition or to camp. So bring your camera and capture memories of the mammals and the beautiful scenery of the Boreal forest in Ontario's Sunset Country.

Other Boreal Resources

Canada's Boreal Forest - NRCAN

Ontario's Forests

The Atlas of Canada - Boreal Forest Maps

The beauty of Canada's Boreal forest regions is spectacular. The continuous forest makes ideal habitat for mammals, birds and other creatures.

Get a Free Sunset Country Guide & Map

Sunset Country produces an annual Travel Guide and Fishing Map. Get your free copy here: Free Travel Guide and Fishing Map