An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Black Bears

Otter Brown-Out

9-28-17 otter brown-out 049A5342North American River Otters are not territorial in the classic sense of marking territorial boundaries. Instead they mark prime resource areas within their territory. Often, the site is near their den or a productive food area. They visit these sites repeatedly to urinate, defecate and roll around on the ground – so much so that the surrounding vegetation is often dead or dying and is referred to as a “brown-out.”

If an otter has been eating fish, its scat is often just a pile of fish scales. However, if it has been dining on crayfish and it is fresh, the scat can be tubular. No matter what form otter scat takes, a tell-tale sign (in addition to fish scales and/or crayfish exoskeletons) is the presence of clear, white or yellow mucus (scat-jellies). It is not always deposited, but occasionally you do find it. The origin of this mucus is not known – most likely it’s from the otter’s intestinal tract or its anal glands. Research shows that the presence of mucous deposits in some otter species indicates reduced prey availability or reproductive state.  (Photo: Tubular otter scat is circled in red. Mucus is on right side of photo. Thanks to David Putnam and Natalie Starr for yesterday’s and today’s photo op.)

Reasons why Mystery Photo was not

       Black Bear: Scat consists primarily of crayfish remains.

Beaver: Beavers defecate only in water, and individual pellets consist of tiny woody fragments resembling sawdust.

       Raccoon: Raccoons have latrines where multiple scat is deposited, similar to otters. However, only otters deposit mucus.

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Black Bears Foraging

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This is the time of year when Black Bears are looking for every available source of food in order to bulk up before entering hibernation. During this period of gorging (hyperphagia) Black Bears consume large quantities of fruits, berries, nuts, grasses, roots and insects.

In particular, they favor the brood (larvae and pupae) of ants, due to their relatively high content of fat and protein. Black Bears find brood by detecting the pheromones and other chemicals such as formic acid that ants use for communication and defense. Research has confirmed that Black Bears will dig up as many as 200 ant colonies a day, flipping rocks, moss and leaf litter over and tearing apart logs, stumps and snags (such as the one pictured), using their canine teeth and claws to gain access to the ants. Once they have torn apart the stump or snag, they use their long, sticky tongues to gather brood. Anthills are avoided except for when Black Bears are extremely hungry, due to the fact that bears prefer not to get a lot of soil or sand mixed in with the brood they’re eating. (Thanks to Virginia Barlow for photo op.)


Black Bears Communicating

6-21-17 black bear by Alfred 2017-05-24 15.35.19Black Bear males are not shy about making their availability and intentions known to the opposite sex. Their most prevalent means of communicating this information is to leave their scent on trees (as well as other structures, such as telephone poles– see photo) by scratching them with their claws, biting them and rubbing on them with their shoulders, back and neck. Often they will use the same marking tree year after year, with signs accumulating on the tree.

Both males and females mark trees year-round, but at this time of year, at the peak of their mating season, males are especially active markers, in order to convey their social identity, reproductive status and location to female passersby. One might consider such marking trees as ancient “scratch.com” mating sites. If you find one, be sure to look for stray hairs that have been inadvertently left behind. (photo by Alfred Balch)

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This Year’s Black Bear Cubs Growing Up Fast

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It’s hard to believe that four months ago when it was born this Black Bear cub weighed less than a pound and measured about eight inches in length! Most Black Bears mate in June, but because of delayed implantation their fertilized eggs don’t implant in the uterine wall and the embryos don’t begin developing until the fall (if the mother has had a sufficiently nutritional diet), just as the mother is entering hibernation.

The cubs are born in January, after only a few months inside their mother. They are just a fraction of one percent of the mother bear’s weight, compared to an average human baby that is about seven percent of its mother’s weight. The cubs nurse constantly for the next four months (during which time their mother is not eating or drinking).  The fat content of Black Bear milk can be as high as 20-25 percent. Human milk is comparable to cows’ milk, generally ranging between three and five percent fat. (A biologist who had the opportunity to sample Black Bear milk reported that it was similar in taste to sweetened condensed milk.)

In April, when the cubs emerge from their den, they weigh about six pounds.  Milk production and intake now increases four-fold. Peak lactation (45 ounces of milk per day per cub) occurs in June and July. As a result, the cubs have a huge growth spurt their first summer and will weigh between 40 and 60 pounds by the end of it.

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Woodland Recycler

4-7-17 chickadee on scat 116The ability to find food is crucial for all creatures.  It involves looking in every potential location, including the waste material of other animals.  Nothing goes to waste in the natural world, and I was fortunate to observe an example of this recycling phenomenon recently in bear-inhabited woodlands.

Even though feeding birds is discouraged at this time of year due to the seeds’ appeal to hungry, emerging Black Bears, many find it a hard habit to stop. Inevitably Black Bears will smell the seeds in feeders and help themselves to them.  If this continues long enough, the bears will become habituated and eventually this can lead to their being considered a nuisance, which can lead to their demise. Thus, it’s best to stop feeding birds now that Black Bears have emerged from hibernation.

That said, those who continue to fill feeders in the spring and have had them raided by bears need not fear that their birds are without recourse should they find the feeders empty or missing. Much of what goes in comes out, and bears deposit their seed-laden scat throughout the woods, creating ground “feeders” for all kinds of creatures. In this instance, a Black-capped Chickadee repeatedly helped itself to uncracked sunflower seeds amongst a great deal of millet and sunflower seed husks in the scat of a Black Bear.

This post is dedicated to Sadie Brown, Solid Waste & Recycling Coordinator for the town of Melrose, MA.

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Black Bears Emerging From Hibernation

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Time to take in bird feeders, at least at night. Black Bear sightings are being reported throughout northern New England, a bit earlier than usual probably due to the erratic weather we’ve been having. Adult males emerge from their dens first, females with cubs  last – the opposite order in which they entered in the fall.

Having survived the winter by living off the fat they accumulated last fall, Black Bears weigh considerably less upon waking. Males will typically drop between 15 and 30 percent of their body weight, while lactating mothers can lose up to 40 percent. Even so, for the first two or three weeks following hibernation, bears eat and drink less than they normally do, while their metabolism adjusts to the changes. This is referred to as “walking hibernation” by some biologists. Once normal activity resumes, and until herbaceous green shoots appear in wetlands, bird feeders  are a main attraction.

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An Artist’s Eye

Readers of my Naturally Curious blog have provided me with connections to kindred spirits, inspiring insights and probing questions. Sometimes I receive requests from non-profits to use my images in their newsletters, displays, etc. Occasionally an individual writes with a special request. Melissa Ball is such a person. She wrote me just about a year ago and introduced herself as an artist in Pennsylvania who would like to use an image of a Black Bear that I photographed settling in for a nap 20’ up in an Eastern White Pine as a reference for a painting. I said of course, and truthfully, pretty much forgot about this exchange. Little did I know what an honor had been bestowed upon me. It turns out that Melissa is an artist very well-known for her  unique and highly detailed artwork on turkey tail feathers. (You can see her work at http://www.turkeytails.com.)  Her Black Bear painting, however, is on canvas, not a feather!  There is no question that in my eyes, Melissa absolutely captured the essence of this winsome bear. (Original photograph is beneath Melissa’s painting.)

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