Discover The 9 Largest Animals In Kentucky, and Where You’ll Find Them

Written by Hannah Ward
Updated: October 8, 2022
Image Credit Cornelius Doppes/Shutterstock.com
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Known as the “Bluegrass State,” Kentucky is famous for its vast green pastures and horses. However, it is much more than we first expect. Kentucky is bordered by three major rivers – the Mississippi, Ohio, and Big Sandy rivers – home to many fascinating animals. The state also includes a national park and two national forests and has been the center of several successful reintroduction programs – particularly elk and wild turkeys. These are amongst the largest mammals and birds in the state, but just what other animals call Kentucky home? Join us as we discover the largest animals in Kentucky and where you’ll find them!

Largemouth Bass

Trophy Largemouth Bass
Largemouth bass are carnivorous freshwater fish and live in lakes, ponds, and rivers.

Largemouth bass are the largest fish in Kentucky, with a record size of 22 pounds, 4oz, and a state record of 14 pounds, 9.5oz. Capable of reaching almost 30 inches, largemouth bass are extremely popular with anglers. Largemouth bass has a greenish-grey color, with black blotches forming a line down their flank. They are carnivorous freshwater fish and live in lakes, ponds, and rivers. They prey on a wide range of fish – such as bluegill, yellow perch, trout, and shiners. However, they also eat snails, frogs, snakes, and small birds. Largemouth bass are found in most major lakes in Kentucky, with Dale Hollow Lake, Green River Lake, and Herrington Lake being popular spots.

American Black Bear

animals unique to North America: American black bear
The American black bear can run up to 40mph.

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One of the largest animals in Kentucky is the American black bear which weighs approximately 550 pounds. They are endemic to North America but are the most widely distributed bear species. Black bears prefer to live in areas where there is plenty of thick vegetation for them. Their preferred areas are woodlands and mountainous regions at elevations between 1,300 and 9.800 feet. The bear population is increasing in Kentucky, and the Black Mountain region is one of the state’s best places to see them. Black bears are omnivorous and eat a range of grass, fruit, seeds, insects, and mule and white-tailed deer fawns.

Sandhill Crane

sandhill crane
Sandhill cranes live in freshwater habitats – particularly swamps, marshes, and river basins, where there is plenty of food for them to forage.

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Standing up to 4ft 6ins and with a wingspan that can reach 7ft 7ins, sandhill cranes are undoubtedly huge birds. They have a distinctive appearance with grey bodies, a red crown on their head, and a long pointed bill. Sandhill cranes live in freshwater habitats – particularly swamps, marshes, and river basins, where there is plenty of food for them to forage. They are omnivores and eat various seeds, berries, insects, snails, and amphibians. Sandhill cranes are migratory birds, and Kentucky has long been on their annual migration route. Every year, thousands of them descend on Barren River Lake. Although they usually live alone or in pairs for much of the year, they live in huge communal flocks during migration.

Timber Rattlesnake

Timber rattlesnaake coiled in a loop
Timber rattlesnakes are highly venomous but have a fairly mild temperament and rarely attack without giving plenty of warning first.

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There are four venomous snakes in Kentucky. The largest is the timber rattlesnake which typically reaches 3 to 5 feet long. These heavy-bodied snakes are yellowish brown with dark brown or black crossband markings that often have zig-zag edges. Timber rattlesnakes are highly venomous but have a fairly mild temperament and rarely attack without giving plenty of warning first. They mainly live in thick forest regions, although females prefer areas with rocky outcrops so they can bask in the sun. Although once found statewide, they are now only found in the thickest forests. The exceptions are the Bluegrass region and northern Kentucky, where they are absent.

Giant Water Bug

Giant water bugs live in ponds, streams, and marshes, where they prey on fish, snails, amphibians, and crustaceans.

iStock.com/Eric Kukulowicz

The largest insects in Kentucky are giant water bugs, members of the Belostomatidae family group. Giant water bugs have flattened oval-shaped bodies; the largest species can reach 4.5 inches long. Giant water bugs live in ponds, streams, and marshes, where they prey on fish, snails, amphibians, and crustaceans. They are also commonly known as toe-biters, and this is because they can deliver an incredibly painful bite when disturbed or handled. Giant water bugs are found all over Kentucky but are most common in the state’s southern region.

Blue Catfish

Blue Catfish
Blue Catfish are predatory fish that are classed as a pest in many places.

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The largest species of catfish in North America and one of the largest fish in Kentucky is the mighty blue catfish which can reach 150 pounds. Blue catfish are predatory fish that are classed as a pest in many places, and they are opportunistic feeders and eat pretty much anything they come across. Although blue catfish are primarily found in freshwater lakes and rivers, they are also noted for their ability to tolerate brackish water, allowing them to survive in bays and estuaries. They are widely distributed across Kentucky. However, places such as Barren River Lake, Buckhorn Lake, and Rough River Lake are hailed as being prime spots to land them.

Bald Eagle

bald eagle
Bald eagles are migratory, and the best time to see them in Kentucky is during the winter between September and March.

PHOTOOBJECT/Shutterstock.com

The largest bird in Kentucky is the stunning bald eagle with a massive wingspan of up to 7ft 7ins. These huge birds are easily recognizable by their appearance, including a dark brown body with a white head and tail. Bald eagles are sea eagles and typically live near large bodies of water – such as lakes and coastlines. They predominantly eat fish which they scoop straight out of the water with their sharp talons. Bald eagles are migratory, and the best time to see them in Kentucky is during the winter between September and March. Kentucky Lake is one of the prime bird-watching spots in the state to see them.

Grey Rat Snake

Grey rat snakes are also chicken snakes because they tend to break into chicken coops.

Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

One of the most widespread animals in Kentucky is the grey rat snake, the largest snake in the state. Grey rat snakes are 3.25 to 6 feet long and are typically grey, brown, or white with darker blotches on them, although some can be completely black. Grey rat snakes are also chicken snakes because they tend to break into chicken coops. However, they also prey on rodents, birds, lizards, and frogs. They are not venomous and kill their prey by constriction. Grey rat snakes are highly adaptable and live in various habitats – such as forest edges, parks, grasslands, and swamps. They are also semi-arboreal and can often be found hanging out in trees.

Elk

boiling river yellowstone
Elk typically live in forests and can be seen in large herds comprising several hundred individuals.

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The largest animal in Kentucky is the massive elk, also known as the wapiti. Elk are the second largest members of the deer family. They stand up to 4ft 11ins at the shoulder, weighing 375 to 1,100 pounds. Elk typically live in forests and can be seen in large herds comprising several hundred individuals. However, for much of the year, the males and females remain separate – with females and calves living in one herd and males living together in “bachelor herds.” The two come together during the breeding season – known as the rut. Elk are widespread across the eastern regions of Kentucky, with South Fork Elk View in Breathitt County being one of the best places to see them.

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Elk Calling

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About the Author

I have been writing professionally for several years with a focus on animals and wildlife. I love spending time in the outdoors and when not writing I can be found on the farm surrounded by horses, dogs, sheep, and pigs.

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Sources
  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_of_Kentucky
  2. University of Kentucky Entomology, Available here: https://www.uky.edu/Ag/CritterFiles/casefile/insects/bugs/giantwater/giantwater.htm