A pine marten rests on a branch of a tree.

Algonquin Park | Explorers’ Edge

Winter wildlife viewing in Ontario

A pine marten rests on a branch of a tree.

Algonquin Park | Explorers’ Edge

Wildlife viewing in the winter is rewarding for several reasons:

  • it’s much easier to identify and follow animal tracks in the snow
  • it’s often easier to spot wildlife without the forest foliage and against the white background of snow (except for the snowy owl)
  • the winter backdrop makes for exceptional photos

Here are a few of the mammals and birds to look out for this winter and where to see wildlife in Ontario.

White-tailed deer

Highly adaptable, white-tailed deer exist throughout North America and are commonly spotted in mixed woodlands and forests across Ontario. They are typically shy, however, so you’ll often see their signature white-fringed tail bobbing in the air as they gracefully bound away, which can signal danger or distress to other deer.

White-tailed deer are creatures of habit and will frequent the same trails and travel routes. Wintering sites, also known as deer yards, are habitats that provide adequate food and shelter during the season.

Each winter, their coats change from a summer tan to a thicker, greyish-brown colour and the spring fawns grow out of their spotted patterned coat. The large antlers on mature males, called bucks, are a majestic sight. However, bucks shed their antlers in winter, only to grow a new and stronger set in spring.

Fun facts

  • male deer are called bucks
  • female deer are does
  • young deer are fawns
  • the group name for deer is a herd
  • the tracks made from deer hoofs look like an upside-down heart shape, with the point indicating the direction of travel, and are about 7.5 centimetres long

Moose

The tallest mammals in Ontario, Moose are part of the deer family. Moose prefer cooler climates, so are more likely to be seen the further north you go in the province.

Their wide hoofs and long legs help them move easily in the snow, and their coat adapts to the cold climate with a thick underlayer and hollow fur that insulates the air and prevents heat loss, much like a winter coat.

Just like their deer relatives, adult males, called bulls, shed their antlers in the winter. The antlers come into use in the fall during mating season to intimidate and challenge rival bulls. Outside of the mating season, moose are solitary animals.

Moose are herbivores and stock up on all sorts of vegetation, including leaves, bark and twigs. These giants can grow to weigh over 900 kilograms (almost 2000 pounds), so they need to graze constantly. In wintertime, however, moose will limit their activity to save energy as their food sources are limited.

Fun facts

  • male moose are called bulls
  • female moose are cows
  • young moose are calves
  • the group name of moose is a herd
  • being in the same family as deer means that moose have similar tracks, but about twice as large 

Red foxes

As a member of the canine (dog) family, foxes have heightened senses of smell and hearing, which come in handy when they’re hunting small mammals like mice, voles and squirrels. Red foxes can be found across Ontario in fields, woodlands, wetlands and, unfortunately, in residential and suburban neighbourhoods.

Red foxes remain active throughout the winter months, hunting and foraging, and typically don’t den until late winter and early spring for the mating season. They are entertaining to watch as they dive head-first into the snow after their prey.

Fun facts

  • a male fox is called a dog
  • female foxes are vixens
  • a young fox is a cub or kit
  • the group name for foxes is a skulk or leash
  • fox tracks are similar to a medium-sized dog’s paw prints, but foxes will travel with a quick and calculated stride, usually in a specific direction, unlike domesticated dogs who tend to meander

Wolves and coyotes

You’re more likely to hear a wolf or a coyote before you spot them.

These two canine cousins are often misidentified. There are many similarities between wolves and coyotes, as well as key differences. Both wild dogs are primarily grey and black in colour and live, hunt and communicate in packs.

Differences include the fact that wolves are larger in size and live in wider packs, while coyotes, which are smaller, tend to stick to sibling groups. The wolf’s signature long howl is distinctly different from the coyote’s higher-pitched and shorter barks, yips and calls. The wolf’s howl travels much longer, too, which corresponds to their broader travel territory. Also, coyotes are only native to North America whereas wolves are found in North America, Asia, Europe and North Africa.

In Ontario, two wolf sub-species are identified as the grey wolf and eastern wolf; sightings have been concentrated in and around provincial parks in areas of central Ontario including Algonquin, Killarney and Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands. Coyotes are more prolific and have adapted to the rural farmlands, parks and forests of southern Ontario.

Both wolves and coyotes embrace winter, actively hunting around dusk and into the night for mice, rodents and even carrion.

Fun facts

  • there is no distinguishing name between males and females, beyond the pack leaders, which are identified as the alphas
  • young wolves and coyotes are pups
  • the group name for both wolves and coyotes is a pack
  • wolf and coyote tracks are different in size: wolf pawprints can be as large as an adult hand while coyote pawprints are much smaller; both are larger than the fox

Porcupines

Porcupines are the second largest rodent in Canada and, unlike their famous larger cousin, the beaver, they don’t hibernate in winter. Instead, they often climb up a tree and spend much of the season chewing on its bark and twigs. So, remember to look up when you are on your nature walks.

Layered over a woolly undercoat are more than 30,000 long guard hairs armored with sharp quills that become the porcupine’s defence when attacked.

Fun facts

  • young porcupines are called porcupettes
  • the group name for porcupines is a prickle
  • porcupine tracks can be identified by their long claw marks and tail drags, or, in deep snow, just a trough-like trail

Fishers and pine martens

Fishers and pine martens are both carnivorous forest mammals that belong to the weasel family. Fishers are larger and darker in colour than pine martens. Both enjoy a boreal conifer or mixed forest habitat.

Fishers, who are sometimes called “fisher cats,” are neither in the feline species nor do they fish but instead are fierce hunters of mice, squirrels and even porcupines. During the summer, these elusive hunters tend to be more active at night, but in the winter, they are known to be active during the day.

Fun facts

  • young fishers and martens are called kits
  • because these two are cousins, their tracks are very similar, with the fishers being a little larger; look for five-clawed toes around a C-shaped metacarpal pad

Owls

Nocturnal, predatory and cloaked in legend and lore, owls are some of the most interesting of Ontario’s birds of prey.

There are almost a dozen species of owls in Ontario including the great horned, barred, great grey, snowy, northern saw-whet and boreal owl, all of which stay active during winter.

Ontario’s owl species have different winter hunting patterns, like the snowy owl who prefers wide open fields to the dense pine preference of a great grey. Insulating soft feathers muffle the sound of flight, allowing these predators to attack in total silence.

Because owls are so well-camouflaged, often the only way to spot them is by hearing their calls first. Each has a unique call by which you can learn to identify the species. For example, many describe the call of a barred owl as “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” and the saw-whet sound as a “too-too-tooo.”

Fun facts

  • baby owls are called owlets
  • the group name for owls is a parliament

Woodpeckers

There are at least nine different species of woodpeckers identified in Ontario, but some of the most common types of woodpeckers you’re likely to spot in winter are the downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers.

Look for black and white patterned feathers on the downy and hairy. The pileated woodpecker is much larger, with mainly black feathers, white stripes down its neck and underside and a striking, flaming red, cap-like crest.

You’ll know the woodpeckers from their familiar tapping sounds. Woodpeckers are known for drilling holes into tree trunks, branches and downed logs with their beaks in search of insects. They are equipped with unique features like zygodactyl feet with opposing toes that allow them to grip tree trunks, long, sticky tongues to capture insects, strong tails used to steady themselves and an amazing, shock-absorbing skull bone.

Fun facts

  • young woodpeckers are nestlings before they leave the nest, after which they’re known as fledglings
  • the group name of woodpeckers is a descent

Songbirds

Most bird species migrate south before winter, but a few hardy songbirds remain in Ontario throughout the season (or most of it).

For example, you may see white and red-breasted nuthatches. Active and agile, these little birds have a unique approach: they will often forage tree branches and trunks upside down.

Blue jays are also known to stay active in winter. Easily identifiable by their bright blue, black and white plumage, blue jays are vocal songbirds that belong to the crow and raven family. They are highly intelligent, curious and social birds and have been witnessed warning other birds of predators.

Fun facts

  • young songbirds are nestlings before they leave the nest, after which they’re known as fledglings
  • the group name for songbirds is a party or band
A mature female and young moose walk in the snow.
Algonquin Provincial Park | Explorers’ Edge

Where to see animals in the wild in Ontario during winter

Ontario’s conservation areas are diverse natural environments protected and maintained by a collection of conservation authorities, many of which remain open in the winter. Find a year-round conservation area near you.

Over two dozen of Ontario’s provincial parks remain open throughout the winter offering a range of snow-based activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Purchase your daily vehicle permit and make camping reservations in advance.

Some of the most popular parks for winter wildlife sightings include:

Algonquin Provincial Park

A host of animals and birds have been spotted or heard in Algonquin in winter, such as moose, foxes, fishers, martens, otters and wolves. While you may not see the animals themselves, you will very likely encounter tracks of these mammals. Ravens, blue jays, Canada jays, chickadees, woodpeckers and several species of winter finches are also common to see. The park’s birding report lets you know what species have been observed recently.

Location: Algonquin Park Visitor Centre, Highway 60 at km 43, Algonquin Provincial Park

Killarney Provincial Park

In winter, moose, deer, wolves, martens and even bobcats have been reported in Killarney. While many of these animals are shy and elusive, winter snows make it easier to know when they’ve been around.  You’ll see lots of tracks through the forest – try identifying who made them with apps like iNaturalist, which also helps the park record the animals that live there. If you want to extend your visit, Killarney offers six yurts and two cabins for rent. Just be sure to make your reservations online well in advance.

Location: 960 Highway 637, Killarney

Quetico Provincial Park

Quetico’s winter woods shelter moose, foxes, martens, hares and owls, including Great Grey owls and Barred owls.

Location: Highway 11, Atikokan

Pinery Provincial Park

This southern park offers great walking, skiing, snowshoeing and even biking in winter as conditions vary from mild to frigid. Winter songbirds and birds-of-prey, squirrels, white-tailed deer, and even coyotes may be seen by patient observers. 

Location: 9526 Lakeshore Road, Grand Bend

Tips for wildlife and nature viewing:

  • never feed wild animals
  • do not approach wild animals; give them lots of space
  • keep dogs on a leash
  • the quieter you are, the better the chance to see animals in the wild

For more nature and wildlife viewing opportunities in Ontario, check out:

Last updated: December 12, 2022

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