The Secret Life of the Black Bear

Many years ago I was awakened to the stories of our wild neighbors. Though we do not always see them, they leave so much information about the stories of their lives. There is adventure, drama, death, play, romance, and mystery. Through the years I learned how to stop, look, listen, smell, and feel these stories and attempt to reveal the mysteries. I do this through the art and science of animal tracking.

To see what our wild neighbors do – through their tracks, and their behavior through the signs they leave behind: claw marks on trees, scrapes, bite marks, digs, rubs, scat – is an initiation into a secret world. Though the world of our wild neighbors may seem one of secrecy to us; to them it is a very obvious. The sign they leave behind are markers to state who they are, what they are doing in the area, and if they are available to mate.

Some mammals are crepuscular; that means most active during twilight, at dawn and dusk such as deer, moose, rabbits, and beaver. Others are nocturnal such as our bat friends and flying squirrels. Then there are those, who like the majority of humans, are diurnal – active during the day – such as gray and red squirrels. Whether or not we have the opportunity to watch our wild neighbors up close and personal, they always leave sign of their presence and as a tracker you get to see those visual cues and smell their scents and be able to have that deeper connection and understanding of what is happening in the environment you are exploring.

Our black bear story takes place on a chilly fall day where the leaves covered the ground and the sound of the crunching under our feet echoed through the forest. My friend Mark and I were tracking through an open deciduous forest full of majestic American Beech elders, Red Oak, White Birch and Hickory. This year was a mast year for Beech and many beechnuts covered the ground. We noticed a large disturbance of leaves and as we looked closer we saw the tracks of turkey feeding signs mice,squirrel and the prints of deer and bear tracks. For a tracker all this sign could be equated to a kid in a candy shop; so much to gaze at and be excited about; so much to choose from. Aha, the treat we had to take a closer look at; the pièce de résistance, were black bear claw marks going up this tree as we looked up we saw many broken branches. They had been broken from all directions being pulled into the center. We knew this was not storm damage for the breakage would have been in all one direction of the path of the storm. We had discovered a “Bear Nest” this is a place where they climb up and sit in the middle of the crotch of a tree and FEED pulling the branches in to them then sitting on them and eating more. When bears are feeding constantly to put on weight they often are resting/ napping often too. Perhaps in the nest? later on that day when we were under the Hemlock trees we found an amazing sight. A set of bear tracks in the shallow snow with great detail. As we followed the mystery of where are they going why this direction we saw something I had never seen before. Right underneath the Hemlock tree at the base was a large clump of branches. These were not short they were rather long some 2 feet and in such a beautiful arrangement in the shape of a rounded bed. This was a Bear bed I had never known they made above ground beds with such detail and weaving of all Hemlock branches for a soft form.

So earlier in the day we found bear tracks at the base of the beech tree’s bear claws leading up the understory to eat beechnuts. Why beechnuts? Beechnuts are high in fat and bears are looking for high-energy foods to fatten themselves up to survive the winter some sources quote Beech nuts having 60% Fat. When we have a mast-year of beechnuts such as we had this year, with so many Beeches producing an abundance of fruit, the bears capitalized on this food source. You may have noticed last year that we had a mast year of acorns, with oaks putting out acorns aplenty. Bears are opportunists so whatever tree species are masting, bears will be there to put the weight on.

Throughout the summer bears are fattening up whatever berries, nuts, invertebrates and other animals they can find and just as we do they have their favorite foods. Don’t worry though, we are not on the menu of the black bear who typically stands about five feet tall with a range of four to seven feet tall. Adult males weigh between 125 and 500 pounds, depending upon age, season, and food while adult females usually weigh between 90 and 300 pounds, again, depending on age, season and food type availability.

According to Paul Rezendes, a renowned tracker in the northeast, that given the choice, Black Bears seem to prefer beechnuts even after the snowfalls. He has witnessed them digging up Beechnut under a foot of snow and putting off their sleep if there’s a good crop. Looks like this year the bears may be up past their bed time. There are years when
the American Beech do not have a “bumper crop” year and so the bears will seek out other tree species that are masting in any given year. Apparently they will even feed on White Ash seeds when the oak, beeches, and hickories are not masting. My wife and I sampled White Ash just to see what they would taste like. Arianna was not impressed
with the idea of having to eat many of these, whereas, upon soaking the beechnuts, she claimed them “quite tasty”.

Though spring to summer was mating season and summer to fall was major caloric intake season, come November a black bear’s focus is finding a denning site. They will try a number of sites before they settle on the one that serves their specific needs. A den may be a hollow tree, a cave, or an excavated den of a smaller mammal or even a small depression above ground; the main criteria is where a bear has determined to be safe and secluded. And this winter, on your visits through the woods, you may snowshoe or ski right by a bear den and not even know it.

A pregnant female will give birth sometime in January or early February and as any human mother will confirm, that under no circumstances, unless you are being heavily sedated, could you possibly sleep through a birthing experience. They are however, very efficient hibernators. In the late fall the Black Bear will start to eat less and become more lethargic, and while they are denned up during the winter they will not eat, drink or defecate during hibernation. And because their fur is so insulative, the bear’s body heat is lost very slowly, “maintaining temperatures above 88 degrees–within 12 degrees of their normal summer temperature.” (Rogers, Lynn, 1981) Still, a female Black Bear is
certainly alert enough to nurse and clean her young.

So as you step outside this winter, work on developing a deeper awareness of the beings around you. This will serve you in whatever you do in life. So go off trail into the forest, fields, swamps, and ridges. Explore the wild world around you and perhaps you too will find black bear marks on a beech tree in the middle of the woods and then say – AHA!

Learn more about Black Bears!

Read and watch Black Bear researchers such as Lynn Rogers and Ben Kilham; they have so much to share! Additionally, since it is challenging to express all the information in an article about black Bears and I want you to get outside, into the outdoors, I’ve provided a video to go along with this article so that you can go out on your own or with your family
and be able to find these things in your own forest.

Please be mindful and respect the Bears in their habitat.