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5 ubiquitous urban animals we rarely notice in Minnesota

Andy Witchger

Andy Witchger

Have you seen these critters around town? 

Gray Treefrog

These resilient amphibians rarely descend from treetop perches except to breed. Even then, their camouflage allows them to avoid detection by predators and humans alike. Taking on wide-ranging colors -- from black and brown to gray and green -- the gray treefrog boasts a remarkable antifreeze-like chemical that prevents liquid in their bodies from freezing in the winter. That trait allows our northerly state to appreciate their iconic song and stunning color changes each year when they emerge from their torpor.

How to find one: Gray treefrogs are most accessible during the spring breeding season around temporary stagnant pools. Their tendency to congregate around lights that attract bugs makes them a frequent (well-concealed) visitor to backyard patios and decks.

Red Fox 

The most common predator in Minnesota, red foxes can be found almost everywhere, even in the city. These striking predators are most often seen slinking across roads and fields at dusk as they hunt for prey like rats, mice, and rabbits. Solitary other than while breeding, foxes avoid their deep dens and prefer to sleep in the open during the day, even during Minnesota’s harsh winters. If you’re lucky enough to spot this elusive hunter, you’ll likely see its speed and tremendous jumping ability, which, at 15 feet in a single leap, surpasses even kangaroos.

How to find one: Chances are you’ll see a fox at some point, but not in proportion to their actual numbers. Urban wildlife centers like Wood Lake Nature Center, Theodore Wirth Park, Fort Snelling State Park, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and T.S. Roberts Bird Sanctuary all have active fox populations. A well-timed twilight hike should do the trick.

Eastern Screech Owl

These pint-sized masters of camouflage are well-suited to urban environments, frequently taking up residence in nest boxes and tree cavities. More often heard than seen, these tiny owls are most active at night, stalking prey from 5-10 feet off the ground. In addition to feasting on bugs, rodents, and other birds, they use their remarkable agility to prey on larger animals like bats and fish.

How to find one: Check tree cavities and nesting boxes during breeding season on bright, cold days, when these owls enjoy sunning themselves. Listening for their distinctive call at dusk, or searching under tree cavities for pellets, can also help you zero in on a nesting location.

Groundhogs

Also called woodchucks, whistle pigs, or marmots, these charismatic rodents are often treated as a nuisance. While it’s true that their burrows can destabilize foundations or disrupt gardens, in their natural environment groundhogs efficiently compost and aerate the soil and prevent flooding. Urban sprawl has given rise to increased human-groundhog interaction, but it’s hard to blame these persistent critters for doing what they were born to do.

How to find one: Groundhogs are active in many larger city parks, including Lake of the Isles, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and Loring Park. Or, you could eavesdrop at your local garden shop waiting for complaints, then invite yourself over under false pretenses.

Warblers

For a few weeks every spring and fall (and all summer if you live in northern Minnesota), these diminutive birds from Central and South America inundate Minnesota on their journey to and from their northern breeding grounds. Often covered in spectacular yellow, blue, or red breeding plumage, flocks slip past the casual observer as they flit from treetop to treetop, feeding on bugs.

How to find one: Befriend a birder. Or, utilize citizen science sites like ebird.org or MOU.net, which alert locals to notable sightings and migration timing in the area. The warbler's distinctive song, combined with a lack of foliage on trees, make it easiest to spot during early spring.

All photos by Andy Witchger