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Black Bears

Black Bear Scats Reveal Diet

8-25-14  black bear blueberry scat 062Black Bears are eating heavily now, in preparation for the coming winter when they will not eat or drink for several months. Some of what goes in must come out, however, and it can tell you a lot about the diet of an animal. Black bear scats typically weigh ½ to 1 pound or more. They have different shapes and consistencies, depending on what the bear has eaten. Black bear scats may be tubular or loose, depending on the amount of moisture in the food that the bear ate. Scat from succulent vegetation or berries is typically loose. Interestingly, black bear scats do not have an unpleasant smell if the bears ate only fruit, nuts, acorns, or vegetation — they smell like a slightly fermented version of whatever the bear ate.

At this time of year, Blackberries, Wild Sarsaparilla fruit and Blueberries are ripe and favored by bears. You can determine what a bear has been eating by the shape and size of the seeds in its scat. (A bear’s scat can consist of just one type of fruit if there is an ample supply of that fruit.) Wild Sarsaparilla seeds are crescent shaped, Blueberry seeds are tiny and sand-like, and Blackberry seeds are larger than Blueberry seeds. Blueberry scat (pictured) usually includes whole berries that were not soft and ripe enough to be broken up in the bear’s stomach. Bears hardly stop to chew berries. Instead, they swallow them whole and let the muscular, gizzard-like section of their stomach grind the pulp off the seeds. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.)

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Hungry Black Bears

4-25-14 black bear IMG_3624When Black Bears emerge from their dens in the spring, they have lost between 15 and 40 percent of their weight, and food is in short supply. About 85% of a bear’s diet is vegetation, and most trees and shrubs have not leafed out yet. Black Bears often head to wetlands, where grasses and sedges are beginning to sprout. Nutritionally the shoots of these plants provide them with some of the protein they need, but this source of nutrients is short-lived, as the shoots are tender for only a few days before hardening with cellulose. Roots, bulbs, corms and tubers of plants such as Skunk Cabbage and Jack-in-the-Pulpit are sought after, as are the buds of trees, but bears must wait for the bountiful supply of berries and nuts that mature in summer and fall. Those bears living near humans come to rely on foods inadvertently provided by these humans, such as highly nutritional sunflower seeds being fed to birds. One can hardly blame bears for taking advantage of this available source of food during this challenging time. Feeders and cans containing seed should be put in a bear-proof location if you don’t want to encourage “nuisance” bears which, unfortunately, are sometimes killed just for trying not to starve to death.

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Black Bears Birthing

1-27-14 black bear cubs IMG_0391Right now, partially or fully exposed to the sub-zero temperatures we’re experiencing, female Black Bears are giving birth to cubs that are blind, nearly hairless and weigh less than a pound. Although the mother’s metabolism is slightly reduced, her body temperature is relatively high, and she is very responsive to her cubs. The cubs do not hibernate – they retain full metabolism in order to maintain maximum growth, nursing frequently and for long periods of time. Their mother keeps them warm by hovering over them and breathing on them. Like human mothers, she sleeps when her cubs sleep, but awakens quickly and responds to their cries. (Photo taken during research; cub is roughly two months old.)

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Black Bears Still Active

12-27-13  black bear tracks by GinnyFinding Black Bear tracks in late December shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it often does if you’re unaware of the true timing of hibernation. Most of us assume Black Bears are fast asleep by November, but entrance into hibernation is usually considerably later than this. According to Ben Kilham, a New Hampshire bear biologist , pregnant female black bears den first, around the middle of December, followed by unbred females in late December. Males stay active as long as there is a supply of food available and the weather isn’t too severe. Young males remaining active the longest, often into January, in order to put on as much weight as possible in order to compete with older males the following spring. Occasionally when a winter is particularly mild, and it’s a good year for mast crops such as acorns or beechnuts, you hear or see signs of Black Bear through the winter, but this is the exception rather than the rule. (Photo by Ginny Barlow – Black Bear hind foot on left, front foot on right.)

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Shagbark Hickory Nuts Ripening

11-19-13 shagbark hickory 043Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata , a member of the Walnut family, is named after the shaggy appearance of the bark on older trees. Shagbark Hickory produces nuts which initially are covered with thick husks. As time goes on, the green husks turn brown and open, exposing the nuts, which fall to the ground if squirrels haven’t managed to eat them while they are still on the tree. It takes about ten years for a Shagbark Hickory tree to start producing nuts, but large quantities are not produced until it’s 40 years old. Nut production continues (a good crop every three to five years) for at least 100 years. Shagbark Hickory nuts are very sweet and highly nutritious. They were a staple food for the Algonquians and squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, mice, bears, foxes, rabbits, wood ducks and wild turkey also feed on these excellent sources of protein, fats and carbohydrates.

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Apple Scat

10-4-13 woolly bear scat 028At this time of year it’s not unusual to find the scat of various mammals consisting mostly of apple. Red Foxes, White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, Porcupines and Black Bears, in particular, are all avid consumers of this appetizing fruit. Birds, including Purple Finches, Cedar Waxwings and Northern Mockingbirds, also include apples in their diets . While many insects drink the juice of apples, it’s not that often you see an insect like this Woolly Bear caterpillar (the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth) consuming a sizable chunk of a McIntosh apple and leaving behind tell-tale scat. (Discovery by Sadie Richards)

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Preventing Black Bear “Nuisance” Calls

6-20-13 black bear IMG_8729Vermont Public Radio aired a program on black bears yesterday, and the message it conveyed is one I feel is worth repeating, as it applies to anyone living in bear country. Even though the Black Bear population in New England is growing and there is more overlap of black bear and human habitation, we can co-exist. Without enticement, bears would not be prone to visiting backyards, and thus, “nuisance” calls to Fish & Wildlife would be far fewer (as would the number of bears that are put down). Bears go where there’s food, be it bird feeders, bee hives, compost piles or pet food. After a winter of not eating, black bears are extremely hungry in the spring and early summer, and their memory is excellent. If a feeder or bee hive has been raided one night, it will most likely be revisited the next. The best way to avoid having black bears encroach on one’s back yard is to not have any food available. Birds survive very well at this time of year without any supplemental feeding, so bird feeders can be taken down. Bee hives (and compost piles) can be protected with electric fencing. Cats and dogs should be fed inside, where their food isn’t available to bears. As of July 1st, it will be against the law for anyone in Vermont to feed bears – and that includes unintentional feeding (bird feeders, bee hives, pet food, etc.). Before a “nuisance” bear will be disposed of by Vermont Fish & Wildlife, the homeowner will first have to take measures to discourage bears, such as taking bird feeders down and putting electric fencing around bee hives. Sounds like a good law to me!


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