An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Black Bears

Black Bears Scent Marking

4-20-18 black bear biteIn the Northeast, Black Bears typically emerge from their dens in April and mate sometime between mid-May and late June. Prior to mating, Black Bears of all ages and both sexes announce their presence to other bears by rubbing their scent on marking trees (maintaining several on their territory). These “trees” often include utility poles, such as the one pictured. While most of the marking is done by mature males during the mating season, this week’s storm provided proof that scent marking actually resumes in April soon after bears come out of hibernation.

Scent marking can include a bear’s rubbing its shoulders and neck against the tree/pole as well as clawing and biting the tree. Claw marks are usually quite shallow, but incisor bites are deep enough that pieces of bark and wood are sometimes pulled out.  This photograph shows where a Black Bear stood on its hind feet and with its head sideways, grabbed the pole with its mouth open and closed its jaws, scraping a horizontal groove across the pole as its upper and lower canine teeth came together.  The height of the bite was about six feet.

Fresh bear signs indicate that it’s time to bring bird feeders in (either permanently or, at the very least, at night), in order to avoid creating “nuisance” bears,  thereby putting the bears’ lives at risk.

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A Rare Privilege

4-6-18 four black bears 636-RecoveredThe hours I spent with this ursine family were some of the most special hours of my life.  It’s possible, and probably likely, that because they lived relatively close to human habitation, they were cognizant of the fact that I meant them no harm.  Regardless, they allowed me to observe their natural behavior, and that is a priceless gift to anyone, particularly a naturalist.

Black Bears are not  the monsters Goldilocks would have you believe. Offensive attacks are very rare — aggressive displays are much more an expression of their fear than anything else.  Chattering of jaws, false charges and the like are just that — bravado. Even when it comes to defending their young, they are very reluctant to be aggressive — that is much more likely with Grizzly Bears, which are not found in the Northeast. If not encouraged to become a nuisance by the presence and easy access of human lures such as garbage and bird seed, Black Bears can coexist with humans with little to no conflict.

If you’ve enjoyed the photographs of this family of bears, you (or your very young friends) might enjoy my recently-released children’s book, Yodel the Yearling, in which many of these photos plus others appear .

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Black Bear Yearlings Still Nursing

4-6-18 mother black bear with three yearlings nursing in light snow by MHolland 1077

Female Black Bears mate every two years. Their young are born in January or February and  they stay with their mother for the first year and a half of their lives. Although many sources state that cubs are weaned during their first summer, I discovered firsthand that young bears continue to nurse well into their second year (even though they’ve been eating solid food since they were a few months old).

Two different times while I was within a stone’s throw of her, the mother lay down on the ground and her yearlings proceeded to nurse. Soon, in May or June, shortly before she mates, the mother will drive her yearlings away, forcing them to disperse. Life’s lessons have been taught. By their second spring the yearlings have learned the basics from their mother: what to eat and where to find it, how to defend themselves, where to find safety and how to interact and communicate with other black bears. and they should be able to survive on their own.

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Black Bear Yearlings Active

3-30-18 yearling black bears mock fighting 1276

Just like other young mammals, young Black Bears are highly energetic. When they aren’t sleeping, they can be found wrestling, biting, grooming, climbing and playing hard with each other. All of these activities, including the pictured yearlings mock-fighting, equip them with necessary survival skills.

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Exploring With Senses

4-6-18 black bear yearling on back 1058The yearlings were constantly engaged in exploration and play that makes use of all of their senses – playing with sticks, needles and anything else they can find to manipulate with their huge paws, chewing saplings, smelling everything from chewed sticks to each other’s scat, clawing, biting and rubbing on tree trunks, and even approaching me in order to see exactly who and what I am. (Several times I had to shoo one of them away, for fear their mother might object to its close proximity to me.) Some of this exploration serves as the beginning of scent-marking that they will use to communicate with other bears their entire lives, while some of it appears to be just plain fun.

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Tolerant Black Bear Mothers

3-28-17 black bears playing 1368

The yearlings continually challenge their mother’s patience as well as each other’s to see just how much will be tolerated. They climb on, bite, claw and test their mother in much the same manner as toddlers do their (human) mothers. At the same time, when she demands that they follow her instructions, such as climbing a tree when danger approaches, they immediately obey. (Photo: mother bear (lying down) indulging her playful yearling)

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Black Bears Emerging From Hibernation

3-26-18 black bears sleeping 1545

A year ago, in April 2017, while following Black Bear tracks in New Hampshire, I had the good fortune to encounter the bears themselves. Because Black Bears have started coming out of hibernation (April is when most do so) I felt it was timely to share some of my photographs and observations of that encounter. (I did not do so a year ago for fear of bringing attention to and thereby disturbing these bears.)  As I followed the bear tracks, I eventually came upon a refuge, or “babysitter,” tree – where bears rest and cubs/yearlings take refuge when their mother goes off foraging or when she senses danger. I had read about such trees, but never discovered one myself. It was very recognizable — a very large White Pine surrounded on the ground by bear scat and gnawed saplings – fresh signs that bears frequented this area. At the base of the tree were several large “bowls” or indentations in the pine needles that looked as if large animals might have bedded down repeatedly in them, forming nests.

I continued tracking, eventually turning around to head back to where I entered the woods. On my return I passed by the babysitter tree again. To my utter delight I discovered a mother bear with her three yearlings fast asleep in the beds at the base of the tree. It was snowing lightly, and I surmised that this family had recently emerged from their deep winter’s sleep and was still a bit groggy. (Adult males are the first to emerge; females with cubs are the last.) While the yearlings slept on, the mother opened her eyes and decided to tolerate my presence for the next couple of hours. In Naturally Curious posts this week and next, I will share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with you as well as the behavioral observations I made.

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