What’s the most popular animal of all time? Possibly, the bear. Many countries use it as their symbol. It’s found throughout literature, in the sky, in books, in song, and in many a young child’s arms.Why is the bear so adored?Maybe because it’s so cute during its first year of life.
The range of the black bear isn’t limited as it is for many other animals. They’re everywhere. Although bear species such as the polar bear or the Kodiak bear wander only in certain areas, the American black bear is found throughout most of North America, wherever the terrain is wooded and mountainous.One reason is the diversity of the black bear’s eating habits.It’s the most omnivorous of all carnivores.While their diet consists primarily of vegetable matter, black bears also eat their share ofmeat–mainly carrion, mice, birds, and other small animals.
The seasons of the year play a big role in determining the eating patterns of black bears, demonstrating their ability to live on what they can find.During the spring when they emerge from hibernation, black bears’ main food source consists of grasses and weeds along with the carrion of animals that died during the winter.During lean years when food is not readily available, spring is also when they’re likely to prey on other wild animals and livestock. As spring graduates into summer, the bears turn their attention to berries and insects as their main source of food. With the approach of autumn, they supplement the berries with fruit, nuts, and roots. How do they know where to find them?Research studies performed on captive black bears show they see in color, which simplifies the search.
Besides impacting what black bears eat, the changing of the seasons provides an indicator as to their daily eating patterns.In the spring, they’re most active early in the morning and in the evening.After a long winter hibernation, they need to feed, but they don’t have the energy reserves to spend a lot of time regaining their weight. They spend the middle of a warm day conserving energy in a cool, shady area. However, after they’ve restored both their weight and their energy levels, black bears will remain active for more of the day.Summer will see them out and about during the midday hours as well as in the morning and evening.During the autumn when they must gain weight and food supplies are large, they’ll be active both day and night. One factor that guarantees that black bears will become more active, no matter what the time of year, is rain.
Even though they’re called black bears, they display different colors.Most often, those black bears found in the eastern part of the country are truly black, while those in the west are usually brown.In southeast Alaska and the Yukon Territory, black bears tend to have a steel-blue tone in their coat.And, on a few islands off of the coast of British Columbia, black bears known as Kermode bears carry a whitish color.One constant among all the color variations, though, is a tan snout.This is one of the features that distinguishes black bears from grizzlies–along with the hump between the shoulders of the grizzly bear.
The range of black bears and their mating season are directly correlated. Although the average size of a bear’s range depends on the region, males have a much larger range than females.The reason is that more territory allows the male to mate with more females whose own ranges will overlap with his. Another reproductive advantage of overlapping ranges is that the range of the female will bring her into the boundaries of the ranges of more males during a season.
Mating occurs in June and July when a female will remain in estrus for only a few days. During these months, bear activity is high, as a black bear’s sense of smell is very keen and males will travel great distances when they smell a ready female. However, mating season is the only time of year when males and females are together if only for a day or two. The sows don’t undergo implantation for about five-and-a-half months, if then.If a female doesn’t accumulate enough fat reserves to allow for birthing, she won’t bear young–even though she mated.
Young black bears are born between forty-two and forty-six days after implantation and about seven months after mating.They’re born blind with no hair. They generally weigh around a half pound and measure about eight inches long. However, by the time they leave the den for the first time in April or May, they already weigh about five pounds and have a thick coat. The cubs spend their first year-and-a-half with their mother, who drives them away when she becomes fertile again.Female cubs often stay in the same area, maybe even having part of the same range as their mother, while the male cubs move as far as sixty miles away.
Whatever a black bears range, they’re usually found near trees, which they can easily climb to avoid danger.Their ability to climb better than grizzly bears comes from their having shorter and more curved claws than grizzlies as well as their being smaller and lighter. The black bear’s primary predator is man. In the 1700s and after, they were hunted almost to extinction on the East Coast. Many states offered bounties for bears. As late as 1977, a bounty law was still on the books in Highland County, Virginia, although it had been more than thirty years since the last bounty was paid.
Size and Tracks
MALES – Reach their maximum weightrange of 250 to 350 pounds between five and six years of age.The largest black bear on record weighed 750 pounds (shot by a hunter in New York).An adult black bear’s front track is 4 1/2″ or more wide and long while the rear track is about 7 1/2″ long and 4″ wide.
FEMALES – Reach their maximum weightrange of between 120 pounds to 180 pounds from the age of four to five years old.
GENERAL – Black bears living in the east are generally larger than those found in the west.Black bears that live in parks are heavier than those outside, because they’re able to supplement their diet with human food.
BEAR TREE – Black bears will repeatedly claw, rub and bite a tree over a period of years.Sometimes they’ll tear bark off and rub against the tree to get their hair stuck in the resin. “Bear trees” are almost always near well-used bear trails.Bear trees are marked more during mating season, primarily to warn other males in area to avoid confrontation.Females very seldom mark trees.
SIGNS OF AGGRESSION – There are three stages to look for when and if you encounter a black bear: 1)Mild:Low moans, a blowing sound and jaw popping or a short run towards their annoyer with their ears still upright. 2)Moderate:Intensifies mild warnings and adds swatting their paws. 3)Serious: Snapping and biting or charging with their ears pressed down.Most often, if you back away, the bear will stop in order to avoid confrontation.
HOMING ABILITY – Black bears that have been captured and taken many miles away have found their way back to the point where they were captured.The record distance a bear has traveled to return to the site of its capture is 142 miles.
DENS – Black bears have used many different shelters as their winter homes.Sites have ranged from underneath a pile of brush to caves to inside a decayed tree (both on the ground and in a cavity as much as twenty feet off the ground) or an excavated hole.One bear even made its home underneath an unwary homeowner’s patio deck. The guest was discovered when the female’s newborns started making noises.
HIBERNATION – Black bears don’t go into a full sleep until spring.If disturbed, they will wake up to see what caused the disturbance.If they feel threatened where they’ve made their den, they may seek out a new one.Location plays a big part in the length of the hibernation.Food supply and weather help determine when a black bear will go into hibernation.Bears in captive situations that are fed daily will not hibernate, nor will bears in Florida where there’s no threat of snow covering food supplies.Black bears that do hibernate may lose as much as forty percent of the body weight they had when they entered the den.
Photographic Hot Spot
Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia has the highest concentration of black bears in North America.
By Andy Long