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16 Most Interesting Animals in the Midwest

The Midwest region of the United States serves as a fascinating showcase of wildlife diversity, set against a backdrop of both agriculture and natural prairies. This landscape is home to an array of species that have adapted to the heartland’s unique environmental conditions.

Bison, a symbol of the American plains, along with elk and pronghorn, traverse the remnants of their historic ranges. These large mammals share the habitat with a variety of other fauna, from the stealthy movements of the red fox to the burrowing antics of the pocket gopher.

Observing these wild animals below, one may also notice the skies and waters are alive with activity as well. Birds of prey, like the golden eagle and the prairie falcon, take to the air for sustenance, while meadowlarks provide a musical soundtrack to the expanse.
Below the surface of Midwestern waters, brook sticklebacks and bullsnakes contribute to the ecological complexity of the region, each playing their role in the broader tapestry of life.

Efforts to protect and understand the animals in the forests of the Midwest and great plains are ongoing and vital for conservation. National parks and reserves provide refuge and research opportunities in these endeavors. Such protected areas enable species like the bison to persist and allow people to witness these animals in environments close to their natural state. Ecologists and wildlife enthusiasts champion these efforts to ensure that the Midwest’s wild wonders are preserved for generations.

Bison

Bisons in the wild foraging

The American bison, Bison bison, stands as an emblem of the Midwest’s wildlife. Historically, these animals roamed across North America’s plains, forming large herds that were essential to the region’s ecology and to many Indigenous cultures. Conservation efforts have been critical to the reversal of their near extinction from overhunting in the late 1800s. Today, bison are present in protected regions, including national parks and dedicated conservation herds.

Ecology and Behavior:

  • Social Structure: Bison are inherently gregarious, historically found in massive herds.
  • Habitat: Primarily grasslands, including prairies and plains.

Conservation Status:

  • Efforts have led to a resurgence in population.
  • Modern conservation herds stem from a critical low count, with some originating from fewer than 100 individuals.

Human Impact:

  • Indigenous cultures have relied on bison, evidencing a historical symbiosis.
  • Contemporary challenges include habitat fragmentation and conflicts with agriculture.

Current Distribution:

  • Found in various Midwest parks, stretching across multiple units with diverse topographies.
  • Increasing sightings in both suburban and urban Midwest areas, showcasing their adaptability.

Through ongoing management and protection, bison continue to be a testament to the resilience of nature and the success of dedicated conservation initiatives. This keystone species is a key indicator of the health and sustainability of the Midwest’s ecosystems.

Cranes

Cranes with wings wide spread open

The Midwest boasts a remarkable avian spectacle—the mass migration of Sandhill cranes. These cranes are one of the region’s most iconic bird species, with fossil records indicating their presence on Earth for at least two million years. A significant event in the Midwest is the annual Sandhill Crane Migration. An estimated 400,000 to 600,000 individuals make up this migratory movement through the area, comprising about 80% of the world’s Sandhill crane population.

Missouri and Illinois serve as important flyways during migration. The Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) is easily identifiable, marked by a stature of large body size, grey plumage which can be mud-stained to a brownish hue, and striking red forehead. These cranes maintain a distinct crane profile in flight, necks stretched forward, black bill pointing, and legs trailing behind.

In Illinois, Sandhill cranes and their rarer counterparts in midwest states, the whooping cranes, grace the skies in smaller numbers. Conservation efforts document their growth in observance events like the Midwest Crane Count, where volunteers assist in tracking their expanding populations.

Elk

Majestic Elk sanding in the wild

Elk, large members of the deer family, are prominent figures in the Midwest’s wildlife landscape. They are divided into various subspecies; one mentioned in the Midwest is the Manitoban elk (Cervus canadensis manitobensis). Historically, the region was also home to the Eastern elk, which became extinct in the late 1800s. Efforts to reintroduce elk have utilized the Rocky Mountain subspecies.

Adult elk are identifiable by their stature and impressive antlers, which primarily the males carry. In the Midwest’s parks, such as the North Unit and South Unit, elk contribute to biodiversity, grazing on grasses and shrubs and playing a role in the ecosystem as both a predator and prey species.

Their presence is ecological and cultural, symbolizing wilderness and prompting wildlife management and conservation measures to ensure they thrive alongside human activity. Elk viewing can boost rural communities economically, promoting eco-tourism and fostering an appreciation for the region’s natural heritage.

White Pelicans

White pelicans in flight

The American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a prominent aquatic bird in the Midwest’s wildlife tapestry. Boasting one of North America’s grandest wingspans—stretching nearly 9 feet—these birds are a sight to behold. Unlike their coastal relatives, they are primarily inland dwellers, favoring the serenity of shallow lakes for their cooperative feeding style. They do not plunge from great heights to catch fish, a key differentiator from their brown pelican cousins.

In fall and spring, during their semiannual migrations, flocks of white pelicans become temporary Midwestern residents, gracing locations like Will County with their presence. They exhibit a stark white plumage, contrasted by black wingtips visible in flight. The yellow-to-orange hue of their immense bills white belly and leg skin adds a splash of color.

These birds adapt to seasonal changes by migrating from northern hemisphere to southern and coastal regions as far as Costa Rica during winter, ensuring their survival and the continuity of the species. The American white pelican’s presence in the Midwest is a testament to the region’s diverse ecosystems, providing crucial habitats for various migratory species.

Black Bears

Black bear staring straight to the camera

Black bears are an integral component of the Midwest’s ecosystem. Adult black bears exhibit sexual dimorphism, with males typically weighing 150-400 pounds and females weighing less, usually 100-250 pounds. Their fur is predominantly black with a lighter tan muzzle and, occasionally, brown or cinnamon westward.

Diet-wise, these omnivorous mammals have a diverse palette, including grass, seeds, berries, insects, rodents, and carrion. Illinois, for instance, carefully manages black bear populations through hunting licenses to maintain ecological balance. Wisconsin’s population of black bears has grown from 6,000 in the 1980s to numbers that support managed hunting seasons.

Anatomically, black bears have a broad skull, narrow muzzle, and robust jaws. Their eyes are small, with rounded, upright ears positioned back on the head. This species is the smallest among North American bears but is highly dextrous, equipped with short, curved claws suited for varied terrains.

Conservation efforts ensure sustainable populations while managing human-bear encounters. As human development expands into their natural habitats further, the presence of black bears in areas like Kansas showcases an increase in sightings, signaling dynamic population shifts in the region.

Gray Wolves

Pack of grey wolves looking fierce

Gray wolves (Canis lupus), or timber wolves, are native to the Midwest and serve as crucial apex predators in their ecosystem. Characteristically, these mammals have bushy tails with black tips and coats that blend gray and brown, though some exhibit white, brown, or black hues.

The gray wolf population in the Midwest, particularly in areas close to the Iowa border, reflects their broader resurgence in the Upper Midwest, parts of which list them as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The gray wolf migratory patterns extend from west-central Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota to regions approximately 75 miles from Iowa. The recovery of these populations is a testament to conservation efforts, although their status remains precarious.

In Minnesota, wolves are classified as threatened, a slightly less critical designation than endangered. Recognizing the gray wolf’s ecological significance, regulatory protections aim to facilitate the species’ continued recovery amid ongoing environmental challenges. The timber wolf is one of the most fascinating animals in the world.

See Related: Blue Birds: A Comprehensive Guide to Identification and Habitats

Coyotes

Three coyotes in the wild

The coyote, a highly adaptable canine, prevails across North and Central America, indicating success in a variety of habitats. Frequently observed in Midwest regions, the coyote’s diet primarily consists of small mammals, including mice and hares, while also featuring insects, fruit, carrion, and occasionally livestock. They weigh an average of 15 to 40 pounds, with size variations attributed to geographical distribution.

Coyotes are legally protected furbearers in many Midwestern states, requiring individuals to check with state regulations for applicable management practices. Effectively addressing coyote populations often demands an integrated approach. Strategies combine sound animal husbandry with diverse control methods to mitigate potential damages.

Residing in territories, male coyotes can patrol areas up to 36 square miles, whereas females tend to stay within a six-square-mile range. Despite historical efforts to curb their numbers, coyotes have demonstrated resilience and persistence, thriving in urban and remote settings. Their presence in ecosystems is pivotal in maintaining ecological balance, positioning them as key subjects in wildlife conservation conversations.

Opossums

Opossum looking for food on the ground

Opossums, North America’s only marsupials, exhibit a distinctive behavior when threatened: they feign death, a phenomenon known as “playing possum.” They collapse, become stiff, and emit a foul odor to deter predators, demonstrating a unique survival tactic among midwestern wildlife. With an average wild lifespan of 2 to 3 years, these nocturnal animals have adapted to various habitats, from woodlands to urban environments.

Their diet is omnivorous, ranging from fruits and insects to small rodents, showcasing their role as nature’s clean-up crew. Physically, opossums have prehensile tails used for gripping branches, and their hind feet exhibit opposable thumbs, contributing to their climbing prowess. Despite common misconceptions, opossums seldom carry rabies due to their low body temperature. Additionally, they are beneficial to humans as they help control tick populations, hence aiding in the prevention of tick-borne diseases.

White-Tailed Deer

White tailed deers

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), a keystone species in the Midwest, thrives across diverse habitats. Estimates place the Ohio two deer population alone at 600,000, a testament to their adaptability and biological success. They are distinguished by the characteristic white underside of their tail, which is visible when alarmed and aids in communication among herd members. Males, known as bucks, sport antlers that regenerate annually, peaking in size and complexity with age

While their numbers are robust in the Midwest, management practices aim to balance economic interests, such as agriculture and forestry, and ecological integrity. Hunting regulations, habitat conservation, and population monitoring contribute to this equilibrium, ensuring white-tailed deer remain integral to Midwestern ecosystems.

Eagles

Eagle on flight

Eagles in the Midwest are symbols of strength and freedom, mirroring the diverse landscape they inhabit. The Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle are notable residents, with the latter serving as the national emblem of the United States. The presence of the white-tailed and Steller’s sea eagles is less common.

Bald Eagles are primarily found near sizable bodies of water, a testament to their fish-rich diet. Their nests, remarkable for their massive size, often crown tall trees, offering vantage points and security. The mating rituals of these majestic birds take place in early spring, with courtship displays that include intricate flights and nest-building. Female eagles typically lay one to three eggs, with an incubation period of around 35 days.

During winter and summer months, bald eagles can be observed along the Mississippi River, capitalizing on waterfowl migration patterns. They soar with a wingspan of about seven feet, showcasing their white head and tail contrasting against a dark brown body. With a lifespan of up to 20 years in the wild, these raptors form an integral part of the region’s ecosystem.

River Otters

Three cute river otters all wet

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis), a member of the weasel family, exhibits a dynamic blend of adaptability and playfulness within its aquatic habitats throughout the Midwest. River otters possess streamlined bodies, muscular tails, and webbed feet suited to their semiaquatic lifestyle. The resilience of these mammals is evident in their successful reintroductions to regions where they were previously extirpated. A typical adult can weigh between 11 and 31 pounds, navigating riverine environments with agility.

Adaptations such as dense, water-repellent fur and acute senses have equipped river otters for aquatic and terrestrial survival. They remain active throughout the year, delineating territories that they mark with scent. Known for their sociable and frolicsome nature, river otters often engage in sliding across muddy or snowy riverbanks, a behavior that delights onlookers but also serves as a practical means of travel. Despite historical challenges, including habitat destruction and water pollution, conservation actions have fostered a positive trajectory for their populations across the Midwest.

Beavers

Curious beavers standing at a river bank

Beavers, recognized as North America’s largest rodents, play a critical role in their ecosystems. These industrious animals are unparalleled natural engineers, and their dam-building activities create wetlands that benefit a myriad of species. On average, beavers are sized at 23 to 39 inches in body length, and their distinctive, paddle-shaped tails add 7.75 to 12 inches.

Notably, the American beaver (Castor canadensis) thrives across the Midwest. These beavers have adapted to various environments, from woodlands and wetlands to urban areas near water bodies. Their presence in an area is a boon to biodiversity, as their ponds provide habitats for many aquatic creatures and birds.

Beavers are distinguished by their flat, black tails, used for movement in water and communication when slapped against the water’s surface. They’ve been known to grow throughout their lifetimes, with older individuals reaching substantial weight.

Groundhogs

Groundhog looking all cute at the flower fields

Groundhogs, or woodchucks or whistlepigs, are familiar across the Midwestern United States. Preferring open country and the edges of woodland, they are well adapted for digging, with strong limbs and curved, thick claws. Groundhogs can be spotted standing on their hind legs, surveying for predators, a testament to their cautious nature.

These burrowing mammals contribute to the ecosystem by aerating the soil and improving drainage with their burrows, which feature multiple entrances for a quick escape. Their diet primarily of plants comprises grasses, fruits, and vegetables, aligning with their role as herbivores. However, their feeding habits can cause conflict with farmers and gardeners due to crop damage.

Groundhogs hibernate during winter; hence, their emergence is often associated with the end of the cold season. In the traditional lore of the Midwest, notably Groundhog Day, the groundhog’s behavior is observed as a predictor of spring’s arrival. Yet, this is more folklore than science.

Integral to their habitat, groundhogs exhibit behaviors such as chuffing, which can mislead people into perceiving them as aggressive. Misunderstandings aside, coexistence and appreciation of other members of groundhog wild horses’ roles in the ecosystem are vital for preserving Midwestern fauna.

See Related: Monkeys with Red Butts: A Study of Their Unique Adaptations

Red Fox

Red fox in an open field

The red fox, or Vulpes vulpes, is recognized by its vibrant red pelage, which covers its face, back, sides, and tail, with distinct white coloration on its throat, chin, and belly. They are typified by their black feet and ears, which are sharply pointed, and a signature bushy tail with a white tip. As the most prevalent fox species in North America, red foxes thrive across diverse Midwestern habitats, from urban environments to rural expanses.

Red foxes are renowned adaptors, with a varied diet predominantly consisting of small mammals, although insects, birds, berries, and nuts are also consumed.

Despite being reclusive nocturnal animals, red foxes may occasionally be glimpsed in suburban areas, hinting at their ability to coexist with human development. Their adaptability and diet flexibility contribute to their success across various landscapes. Their presence in Midwest ecosystems is a testament to their resilience and ecological significance.

Moose

Two moose with huge anters looking for food

The moose is an iconic giant of the Midwest’s fauna, with the subspecies Alces alces andersoni, often referred to as the Andersoni moose, native to the region. Recognized by their formidable antlers, moose are the largest members of the deer family and stand as symbols of the Midwest and northern Great Lakes areas.

In stature, adult moose can reach heights of about 6 feet at the shoulder. These animals have a potent presence in their habitats, weighing up to 1,200 pounds.

Moose are not only remarkable for their size but also for their adaptability to various food sources. They typically consume a mix of terrestrial and aquatic plants and vegetation. The survival and proliferation of moose in the Midwest are vital indicators of the region’s ecological health. Estimates indicate that the moose population in the United States numbers between 275,000 and 315,000.

Conservation efforts of these animals are crucial to maintaining their populations amid habitat loss and climate change challenges. The moose is a majestic sight for wildlife enthusiasts and a key species for conservationists striving to preserve the rich tapestry of Midwestern biodiversity.

American Badger

American badger with doe eyes

The American badger (Taxidea taxus), a robust and proficient digger, inhabits the Midwestern United States and is most famous for being found primarily in Wisconsin. This mammal is distinguished by its low-slung body, powerful legs equipped with sharp claws, and a coat that ranges from grayish to reddish-brown. Primarily nocturnal, American badgers pursue a carnivorous diet, hunting ground-dwelling rodents through intricate tunnel systems they excavate with exceptional speed.

Adult American badgers typically weigh between 7 and 9 kilograms, with a body length of 60 to 75 centimeters. Their physical build enables a top speed of 30 km/h when necessary. The lifespan of this species in the wild averages between 9 and 15 years, although it varies based on environmental conditions and threats from predators.

In the ecosystem context, the American badger plays a crucial role by controlling rodent populations and aerating the soil with its digging, which can indirectly benefit plant communities. Conservation status for these animals generally indicates stable populations, but habitat fragmentation and vehicle collisions threaten their sustained presence in certain regions of the Midwest.

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