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Black Bears

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.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


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)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


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!


Black Bear Mating Sign

5-30-13 black bear mating sign by A. Balch 002 (2)We’re approaching the peak of the black bear mating season in late May and June, and there’s no better time to look for bear sign than right now. Both male and female bears increase their movements during this time of year. According to the North American Bear Center, males have mating ranges 10-15 miles in diameter and each mating range contains 7-15 female territories. During May and June, both sexes, but particularly the males, mark their territory by leaving their scent on trees, shrubs, telephone poles, sign posts, etc. They do so by thrashing around, rubbing their shoulders and neck against trees and poles, biting and clawing them and urinating on young trees and bushes that they straddle as they walk along. Often the tops and many branches of saplings are broken off, as is evident in this photograph taken recently by Alfred Balch of Lyme, NH.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit Corm: A Black Bear Delicacy

5-23-13 jack-in-the-pulpit corm 069When black bears first emerge from hibernation, they survive mainly on emerging green vegetation in wetlands. As the season progresses, there are more and more food options to choose from, including a favorite – the corm, or underground bulb-like storage structure, of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Even though they are large, somewhat lumbering creatures, black bears dig up and remove these corms as if they had a tiny tool designed just for this purpose. They barely disturb the earth, leaving only very small holes as evidence of their presence. A friend of mine witnessed this just outside his window one spring day, and could not believe the delicacy with which the bear extracted these morsels of food from the ground. Apparently the calcium oxalate crystals in Jack-in-the-Pulpit that cause the burning sensation in human mouths doesn’t affect bears, at least not enough to protect the plant.


Black Bear Hibernation Ends

3-20-13 black bear track IMG_7204Recent discovery of black bear tracks and scat confirm that hibernation has come to an end, at least for some bears. During the winter black bears lose an average of 23% of their body weight. Because there is a scarcity of food when they emerge from their dens, black bears continue to subsist off the fat that they put on last fall, and thus continue to lose weight. The diet of black bears is high in carbohydrates and low in proteins and fats. When hibernation is over, they head for any available succulents and protein-rich food, including bird feeders.


Watch and Listen to Six-week-old Black Bear Cubs

2-24-13 black bear cub IMG_0386I can’t let another minute pass without bringing a website to my readers’ attention, as activity has really picked up recently. The live-cam installed inside a bear den in Ely, Minnesota at the North American Bear Center captures the sounds and movements of a mother bear and her two six-week old cubs 24 hours a day. Everything from the mother’s birth to the fall and rescue of a cub has been recorded. Enjoy part of your snowy (or not) Sunday by taking a look at this ursine family. You may have to have considerable patience before seeing a cub, but it will be worth it, and you’ll hear them night and day! It will be obvious to you that female black bears with newborn cubs do not have the luxury to go into as deep a hibernation as their mates, who are blissfully asleep in their own den. Go to http://www.bear.org/website/live-cameras/live-cameras/lilys-den-cam.html and click on “live stream” in the upper right hand corner of the picture of the bear to view live coverage. You can also see tapes of past activity, both here and on “Lily the Black Bear’s” Facebook page.


Black Bear “Nest”

2-8-13 bear nest IMG_2810If you look up occasionally when you are in a beech-maple forest, you may observe a sizeable cluster of twigs and branches fairly high up in an American beech tree. This “nest” of twigs is usually bigger than any squirrel’s nest and not cup-shaped like a hawk or owl’s nest. In fact, it isn’t a nest at all – it is a sign that a black bear has been sitting, usually in the crotch of the tree, pulling, biting and breaking off branches primarily in order to eat nuts (leaves, buds and catkins are also consumed). When the bear is finished eating what it desires, it discards the branch into a pile. Although known as a bear “nest,” this pile of branches is not a resting spot for bears. If you’re not convinced that a pile of twigs you find was made by a bear, and if it’s in a beech tree, try looking for claw marks on the smooth bark. If it’s a bear “nest,” you’ll most likely find some! (Discovery by Alfred Balch)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Black Bear Tracks

 

This may well be the last month until spring in which signs of active black bears can be found – cold temperatures and a poor beechnut and acorn crop may hasten their retreat into their dens.  A black bear’s track is fairly distinctive, if only due to its size: 3 ½”- 6” wide by 4”-9” long.  Black bears are flat-footed, or plantigrades, and thus you see more than just the toe imprints in a track; the heel pads of the hind feet are larger than those of the front feet.  Black bears have five toes on each foot. The smallest, outside toe often doesn’t register.  Long, curved nails on a black bear’s front feet are used for marking trees and climbing; the hind feet nails are much shorter.


Black Bear Signs & Hyperphagia

Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of  grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  In the fall, prior to going into hibernation, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight by 35% in some cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories (that’s roughly equivalent to 70 McDonald’s cheeseburgers).  Signs of their foraging for grubs and beetles, such as the excavated base of the snag in the photograph, can be found with relative ease at this time of year, if you live where there are black bears.  If you do share their territory with them, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside (my compost bin was destroyed last year but I have no solution for that particular problem), and if you really don’t want any ursine visitors, it’s best to not start feeding birds until most black bears have entered hibernation – late December would be safe most years.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit Corms

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Jack-in-the-Pulpits have underground, vertical swollen stems referred to as corms, which store nutrients that allow them to withstand extremes in temperature, as well as droughts. They also provide the plant with the energy it needs to produce leaves and flowers. A large corm is likely to produce a female plant (which needs more energy to produce seeds), a smaller corm a male. If the plant lacks enough nutrients to produce a flower, its corm will be very small. All parts of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, including the corm, contain a high concentration of calcium oxalate crystals, which are known to cause a burning sensation if eaten. Native Americans roasted or dried Jack-in-the-Pulpit corms (Indian Turnip or Iroquois Breadroot, as they called it) before grinding them into flour for bread, using them to treat colds or as a contraceptive. There is still a demand for their corms today, but it is not from humans – black bears find them irresistible!  NOTE: An alert reader suggested that I emphasize the fact that of Jack-in-the-Pulpit is NOT to be eaten by humans.  The crystals in it bear many sharp needles that cut and poison the flesh, and if bits of the plant get to the back of your mouth, it can cause it to swell to the point of suffocation!


Naturally Curious Interview – Part 2

Chris Mazzarella, on his blog “Forest Forward” has posted the second half of his interview with me.  To read it, you can go to http://forestforward.com/2012/05/07/an-interview-with-mary-holland-part-two/


Abandoned Black Bear Den

Black bears are known for denning in a variety of locations, including under logs and stumps, under the branches of a fallen tree and inside caves and hollow trees. Occasionally they choose a site where they are fully exposed, such dense thickets.  This photograph of an abandoned den is just that — a depression in the middle of a stand of almost impenetrable red spruces which bears have lined with broken spruce boughs.  The imprint of two small bears (likely two year olds) in the needles, plus other nearby signs confirm that this den was inhabited fairly recently. With the mild winter we’re having and the abundance of fruits and nuts this past fall, the hibernation habits of bears may well have been altered –  I know of tracks that were spotted in January as well as this month — one typically wouldn’t expect to find bears emerging from their dens much before late March or early April.  (Notice bark is  missing on some of the nearby spruce trunks from bears biting and tearing it.)


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