Black Bear

Black Bear by John J. Mossesso- US Fish and Wildlife (public domain)

Black bears are not very common in most of Connecticut, but their population is rising rapidly. Most Connecticut bears at present live in the northwestern corner of the state. Black bears have black to brown fur and may have tan muzzles or a white spot on their chests. These are large and powerful animals with a stocky build and short thick legs. A typical Connecticut male black bear (boar) will weigh 150 to 450 lbs. Females (sows) tend to be smaller and weigh 110 to 250 lbs. They have small 3 to 5 inch tails and have large claws on their paws.

Black bears range through scattered sections of the US. There are black bears in New England, New York and Pennsylvania, and they inhabit the Appalachian Mountains south to Florida. Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oklahoma and northern California host black bear populations and bears inhabit the Rocky Mountain states. Black bears live in most of Canada and Alaska. Bears inhabit forests, wooded mountains and swamps. They can reside in wooded residential areas as well. Black bears were native to Connecticut but were erradicated in the state in the mid-1800s. They are coming back to the state as former Connecticut farmlands are reverting to woods.

Black bears are omnivores and very opportunistic feeders. They eat grasses, nuts, berries, fruit, twigs, buds, corn, inner bark, green plants, honey, larvae, ants, other insects, fish, carrion, hikers' lunches- the list is pretty extensive. They will occasionally hunt small animals or deer. Bears raid bird feeders and sources of human garbage. They have a particularly sensitive sense of smell and are drawn to any kind of food source. Outdoor petfood, used grills, garbage, and interesting additions to the compost pile can attract black bears to human habitations. Campers in bear country are well aquainted with bear appetite and learn to store food well away from the campsite bagged in trees or in specially designed bear-proof cannisters.

Black bears tend to be more active at night, but are often active during the day. Black bears are not active during the winter. They eat voraciously during the fall and build up fat reserves. Then they retreat to a den for the winter. Dens can be under logs, dug into banks, in brush piles, or in rocky crevices and are lined with grass, leaves, or soft wood bits. The definition of hibernation has been changing as more is learned about what happens to animals who are not active during the winter. Bears have fallen into and out of the classification of a true hibernator as the definition changes. I think they are currently classified as true hibernators. However, unlike some hibernators their body temperature only drops about 10-14 or so degrees (the temperature of some rodents drops to slightly above freezing). Their metabolism decreases by 50%. They do not eat, drink, or produce waste during this time. If they are disturbed, they can wake up quickly. Sometimes on milder winter days a bear may even get up for a bit or switch dens. Mother bears have to be aware during their winter dormancy because they tend their cubs in the den. Black bears in Connecticut usually stay in their dens from late November until the middle of March. Note that den timing can vary each year depending on weather conditions and food supply.

Black bears mate in June or July in Connecticut. The cubs are born in January or February while the mother is holed up in her winter den. A single litters ranges from 1 to 4 cubs. Bears are not monogamous and the father does not stay with the female or participate in cub-rearing. Cubs stop nursing at around 7 months old, but stay with their mother for up to 2 years, spending a second winter with her in her den. Mother bears are very protective of their cubs and can be much more aggressive while caring for their young.

Black bears are good tree-climbers and strong swimmers. They are usually solitary except for a mother who is still caring for cubs. They may be seen ambling about the woods foraging and may look somewhat bumbling, but a bear can run up to 30 mph. They are strong and capable of ripping open hollow trees to get at larvae or honey. Along with rubbing and biting to leave their scent, they can leave deep claw marks in trees as territorial markers.

Black bears do not normally seek out confrontation with humans. Wild black bears are most likely to run away from humans, and can often be frightened away by loud noises such as shouting or banging pots and pans. Do this from a safe distance! Most of the time, trouble with black bears arises from their attraction to food. If bears learn to associate humans with food then to humans they will go. If they become accustomed to humans and human surroundings they lose their natural caution. Bears are very strong and can be dangerous. You don't want to interfere with a bear's activities. Bears plague campsites, parks and garbage dumps because of the food sources humans leave there by careless habits and by trash containers. The best way to prevent bear problems if you are in an area inhabited by bears is to contain food sources in a way that contains their odors and is sturdy enough to prevent an opportunistic bear from simply tearing the container open. Keep your yard clear of food sources and odor-free and issues can be avoided. Be aware that mother bears with cubs may be much more aggressive. Don't approach black bears at all, but especially avoid a mother with cubs. Bears are best enjoyed from a distance.

Neat Fact

Bear-proof containers have been designed and manufactured for use by backpackers and campers who must carry food when in bear habitat. These containers are typically stored away from the campsite and are designed to contain odors. They are generally very complicated to open. One popular brand requires a depression to be pressed, the lid unscrewed part-way and another depression pressed in order to gain access. This particular style of bear container is rated as bear-proof almost everywhere. It is even safe from the grizzly bears in the West. The sole exception is in one location in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. This is because a particularly clever black bear has learned to open this type of container. Apparently others have learned the trick from her. Yellow-Yellow, as this female bear is called because of two yellow ear tags, is a rather small black bear at 125 lbs. She has learned to grip the container with her paws and turn the lid with her mouth, using a tooth to push the depression