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Natural Curiosities

In January I caught a 3- to 4-pound northern pike with the partly digested remains of a crappie and two frogs, along with four undigested frogs, in its stomach. How could a northern find that many (or any) frogs in the middle of winter?

Rod Broding
Battle Lake

Northern leopard frogs and mink frogs winter in the vegetation near the bottom of lakes, says DNR aquatic education specialist Roland Sigurdson. The cold slows their metabolism, so they can survive by absorbing oxygen through their skin, rather than breathing. But cold also makes them very lethargic -- easy prey for fish like northern pike.

I visited Itasca State Park and found it to be perhaps the crown jewel of a wonderful state park system. On examining a topographical map, I noticed that Bohall and Hall lakes, and possibly Elk Lake, drain into Lake Itasca. Shouldn't one of them, not Itasca, be the headwaters of the Mississippi?

Ed Morsman

Explorer Jacob Brower asked the same question in 1889, when he was trying to determine whether Henry Schoolcraft's 1832 proclamation of Lake Itasca as the source of the Mississippi was correct. Itasca State Park naturalist Connie Cox says Brower consulted experts as to how they would ascertain the source of a river. Ultimately, Brower decided to define the source as the lake from which the outlet flow was large enough that it would not dry up. Streams connecting Itasca with upstream lakes do dry up, but these streams as well as Itasca's springs keep water flowing out of Itasca year-round. The observation led Brower to confirm Itasca was the "true head."

How do ruffed grouse acquire gravel for their gizzards when they live in heavy snow areas and there isn't a lot of gravel?

Chris Bryant
Long Lake

According to Mike Larson, DNR grouse research biologist in Grand Rapids, grouse are able to retain gravel in their gizzards for many months. Another possibility is that hard seeds of the appropriate size could also serve as grit. A third possibility is that grouse can survive without grit for a while because their gizzards have horny plates or ridges that are sufficient for grinding some foods.

For the last 12 years we have been feeding grape jelly to orioles at Leech Lake. We're confident the same birds visit each spring because we don't put the dish out until they arrive and wonder where their food is. What is their life expectancy?

Ken Carlson

Most songbird species experience high mortality?about 75 to 90 percent?in their first year, says DNR wildlife educator Jan Welsh. If they survive to a second year, they usually live for three to six years. The longest-lived oriole known from national bird banding records was 11 years, 7 months old.

There have been sightings of cougars around Northome lately. I would like to see a story about cougars in Minnesota.

Juneal Reitan

Jason Abraham, DNR season management specialist, says: Cougars have never been common in Minnesota, and there is no evidence of a resident or breeding population in Minnesota today. A few cougars dispersing from resident populations in the western United States have found their way here, including one cougar radio-collared in the Black Hills. Each year the DNR receives between 50 and 100 reported cougar sightings. Many are cases of mistaken identification, but a handful of sightings have been confirmed based on photographs, DNA, or animals captured or killed. At least five cougars captured or killed in the last seven years were escaped or released pets. As a protected species in Minnesota, cougars may not be hunted or trapped.

I noticed a pile of about 20 katydids between two landscape blocks in a window well. They appeared to be paralyzed. Is there a connection between the katydids and the black wasps that often nest there?

Neale Deters
Granite Falls

There sure is, says DNR insect expert Robert Dana. Many wasps paralyze insects by stinging them. They pack them into nursery cells to feed their larvae. The wasps you observed may have been great black wasps (Sphex pensylvanicus), which provision their nests with grasshoppers and other prey.

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