Offal, perhaps, but still good for something

Trail camera raccoon
PHOTO: Lisa Zims, Flickr CC

Every fall I think about the time my phone dinged at an important work meeting. It was an e-mail from one of my son’s teachers asking for deer hearts. 

Though perhaps uncommon, my son’s teacher wasn’t the only one asking for the assorted viscera of recently deceased deer. I learned that other local schools run this same experiment. After all, fall in northern Minnesota brings hunting season. If you can’t eat it, why not learn from it?

That’s the principle behind the Offal Wildlife Watching Project from the University of Minnesota Extension service. Now in its sixth year, the program expands from doctoral research to a coordinated statewide campaign. Organizers seek help from Minnesota hunters to learn more about animals from the way they behave around gut piles.

“A lot of hunters are already using trail cams, usually to scout their hunting grounds,” said Grace Milanowski, project coordinator. “I’ve heard from a few who left them out to see what comes after they clean a deer. I think a lot of hunters can relate to just being curious about what’s happening in the woods. That’s the common ground in this project.”

Officially speaking, “offal” refers to the unused portion of animals harvested from hunting, usually internal organs not suited for human consumption. But one man’s potentially harmful bacteria-ridden lower intestines is another animal’s Thanksgiving dinner. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but she loves vitals.

Gut piles dumped in the woods attract rodents, birds, big predators, domestic horses and even other deer, who apparently don’t mind a nibble of their recently deceased associates.

“Rabbits,” added Milanowski. “Quite a lot of rabbits. There are a lot of animals that will not pass up a free nutrient-rich meal.”

Over the past five years, researchers have identified 50 species of animals that visit the offal piles, ranging from mice to bears. They also observed animals using offal as bait for their own hunting, including barred owls and bobcats. Even songbirds like cardinals have been spotted.

“Gut piles and offal are like nature’s suet block,” said Milanowski.

Hunters interested in participating can register at The extension service will send you a trail cam or you may use one of your own. If you successfully harvest a deer, just start the camera immediately after you clean it. Leave the camera up for a month and then send it back. You can transmit the photos via Google Drive or organizers will extract the photos for you. Afterward, fill out a short data sheet. There is no cost or further obligation.

If you’re interested in the results, you can get more involved.

“We are very open to participant feedback,” said Milanowski. “The owl and bobcat hunting anecdote was because a hunter participant mentioned it. That’s what’s really cool about participatory science. It makes direct link between researchers and people in the field seeing things that we can investigate and research.

Not a hunter? You can still help. Sign up at and look for the Offal Wildlife Watching Project. You can help identify animals from among thousands of pictures collected from the trail cams.

Ultimately, the project seeks to better understand the role that human hunting plays in the wellbeing of Minnesota’s many ecosystems. It provides the groundwork to further study the spread of diseases among animals and how the nutrients from offal support scavengers though early winter.

The year my son’s teacher asked for deer hearts, our camp delivered. Not only did we procure a heart, but also a set of lungs and other assorted giblets. His teacher was pleased and the children learned that deer, like Tauntauns, smell worse on the inside.

The Offal Wildlife Watching Project adds another motivating factor for hunters this fall. When the insides go outside, we learn the true nature of the natural world.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Getting to the heart of the matter. Who knows what the research will uncover. And who knows the historic time moments in what we know as Minnesota can bring to our consciousness. Point the readers to the ongoing phenology show and podcast on KAXE. It all needs to be tracked before it is gone. Thanks

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