I recently listened to a wonderful talk about black bears given by biologist Ben Kilham, who has spent more than a decade studying these fascinating creatures.
Black bears are a hot topic in my neck of the woods, as evidenced by the well-attended lecture hall that was standing-room-only by the time I arrived.
From Ben, we learned that:
- Black bears have social hierarchies:
- Momma bear may have daughters and granddaughters that share her territory for food and shelter, but they must obey rules set down by Momma. She might also accept unrelated female bears into her territory in a reciprocal arrangement, sharing food resources when times are tough. Momma will chase off any grown males that invade her turf in the wrong season.
- Male bears also have a social hierarchy, although they wander more and have larger territories than the females. Occasionally, one will form a pact with another male, sharing resources.
- Black bears mate in June or July. They do not mate for life, and they have several partners.
- Momma often will have her cubs around January. In spring, she will take them out to a tree for a few days. She’ll make a bed below it, and then teach them to climb. The cubs will stay with Momma for about a year and then, in the following spring, go on their merry way (especially males).
- Black bears have a keen sense of smell, much better than that of a bloodhound, and can sense another animal that is several miles away. They can detect food, too, in your home, car, garbage can, or bird feeder, and have been known to go after it if natural sources are scarce.
- Black oil sunflower seeds are highly nutritious. When a bear finds a bird feeder full of them, it’s like hitting the jackpot—the equivalent of several hours of foraging.
- Black bears, at least in New Hampshire, like jack-in-the-pulpits to eat during the summer. The corms are more nourishing than acorns.
- It takes a black bear a few minutes to eat a handful of berries, because it eats them one at a time.
- A black bear can mark its territory by rubbing its fur onto tree limbs and trunks. This leaves a scent that other bears can detect.
- Black bears have a sense of justice and will follow an intruder bear for a long way to punish it.
- Black bears are rarely aggressive toward humans. However, if they learn to associate us with access to food, they will lose their wariness.
- When hiking in the woods, make lots of noise—any black bears will hear you and most likely move away before you even see them.
- If, within about 25 feet, you meet a momma bear with cubs on a hiking trail, she might mock charge you and then paw the ground. She can also huff, make chomping noises, and snort. These are bluff displays to scare you off. She might also circle you, in order to get to know more about what you are.
- When in the above situation, Ben has found that if you stand straight and face the momma bear (but don’t stare at her challengingly) and talk softly (don’t run, climb a tree, wave your arms, or make sudden noises), often she will decide that you are not a threat and move on. It is best not to show weakness or fear, such as looking down or turning your back. Remember that bears can climb trees and run faster than you can.
- A black bear that intends to attack will not usually bluff at first, but keep in mind that you can escalate a less critical situation if you startle a bear who’s trying to determine if you are a threat, or who might be expecting other bear intruders. Do not scare bears that are eating, as they are ready to protect their meal. Also, do not startle bear cubs—this might be the last straw for Momma bear and she may decide to give you “what for.”
What do you know about bears? Share your experiences!
Heidi Stonehill, our Senior Editor, joined the team in 2001. She enjoys the natural sciences, gardening, music, art, poetry, and animals—especially her fuzzy feline, Joey.