Vol. 15 Issue 1, Spring 2010
By Nicole Hamilton
Almost every spring, we have reports of Black Bear sightings here in Loudoun, and it’s always quite exciting! In the last few years they have been seen in Aldie, Leesburg, Round Hill, Purcellville, and even Ashburn. Black Bears, the only species of bear in our area, are unmistakable, with females weighing around 100-180 lbs and males weighing about 150-300 lbs. In the west, Black Bears may be brownish in color, but here they are black with a beautiful thick coat.
Sightings in the spring are often of juvenile bears from the previous year venturing out to find territories to call their own. While juvenile females can establish their homes next to the mother’s territory, males are forced to go further in search of new lands. They often follow streams and valleys as they look for new forest areas to make their homes. Once they have established their territory, Black Bears do not roam far, as their home range is generally 2 -15 miles, although they will travel as far as 100 miles if food becomes scarce.
Black Bears prefer old forests with a rich diversity of trees and shrubs that produce fruits, nuts and other plant material. A typical home range will also include rocky outcroppings and a stream or other water source. In the book, Living with Bears, Linda Masterson writes, “Black bears can survive – and even thrive – on the fringes of civilization, or sometimes right in the midst of it. The real question is whether people are willing to live with them, or whether as a species they’ll once again go from wildlife to be treasured to nuisance to be eliminated.”
In the early part of our American history, Black Bears were aggressively killed. By the late 1800s, their populations had been decimated throughout the eastern United States. During the industrial revolution, people abandoned farmlands and moved back into cities, which allowed the eventual return of forests and with them, an increasing bear population. By the 1980s the Black Bear population had recovered.
Black Bears have one of the slowest reproduction rates of all North American mammals. Females are not ready to breed until they are four to eight years old, and even when they start breeding, they only have a litter every two to four years. While the bears live up to thirty years in the wild, they may only breed six times over the course of their lives. However, if food is plentiful they can give birth to two to three cubs in a season. Not all the cubs make it though. They fall from trees, drown in rivers, are hit by cars, and starve if something happens to their mother. In general, one out of three cubs dies before it is a year old. Even with slow reproduction and challenges of the first year, once bear hunting was reduced, their numbers recovered and today are considered healthy.
Black Bears are not the ferocious predators often portrayed in movies. They primarily eat plants with a preference for fruits, nuts and berries. Even though they look like serious predators, Black Bears rarely eat animals larger than ants and grubs. Less than ten percent of the bear’s diet is meat, and that comes primarily from scavenging on carcasses through winter and eating insects that they dig up. In fact, their teeth are not optimized for cutting up meat or grinding foods as deer do. As a result, they need to eat a lot of tender, easily-digestible plant parts to sustain themselves.
Also, their feet are not designed for chasing prey. Black Bears have five toes on each foot, and their claws are not retractable. They walk and run similarly to the way we do, heel to toe. While they can sprint for short distances at speeds of up to 30 mph, they do so primarily to flee others, not to chase prey. Black Bears are built more for strength, with claws designed for digging and climbing trees.
If spring is the time of emergence, then summer is a time for mating and feeding. Mating for Black Bears generally takes place through June and July with males roaming through territories in search of females. Once the female’s eggs are fertilized, they do not implant in the womb until the female is tucked away in her den for winter. If she is sick, injured or malnourished, the eggs are simply reabsorbed. This strategy enables females to forage through the fall and gives the developing young the best chance of survival.
As fall sets in, bears feed voraciously to put on weight to successfully make it through the winter. As acorns, hickory nuts, and berries ripen in late summer and early fall, Black Bears forage for as many as 20 hours per day, gaining up to five pounds per day. It takes a lot of food to gain that much weight, so bears will sometimes wander beyond their home ranges to forage. This is when we may see bears at our bird feeders or roaming through yards.
As fall ends, bears den up in hollow trees, underground burrows, and shallow caves. If all went well through fall, the embryos implant in the females and begin to grow in one of the fastest gestations known for a mammal of this size. By January or February, the cubs are born, hairless and pink and about the size of chipmunks. Through the winter slumber, the mother awakens long enough to greet her newborns and slip back to sleep as they nurse and grow. The cubs grow quickly and by the time they are four months old they are about the size of puppies. Throughout the winter, both males and females awaken every few weeks to eat a little, pass waste, and have some water.
Black Bears are not aggressive but are very shy and flee when they encounter people. Last year, when a Black Bear was sighted at a school in Aldie, outdoor activities were halted for a time. While this decision was made to protect the children from a potential encounter with the bear, bears rarely show aggression towards people. More often than not, any danger that could occur, results from people foolishly provoking or cornering the bear. In general, when a bear is seen in a neighborhood, it is just passing through and will get away from people as quickly as it can.
If in the forest and encountering a Black Bear, you may see other behaviors interpreted incorrectly because of misunderstanding. For example, when a bear wants to scent or see something better, it will stand on its hind legs. If a bear feels threatened, it may growl or make a mock-charge, but these are not actual acts of aggression, the bear is simply hoping to deter the intruder.
Encounters with bears are actually quite rare. Even when walking through woods, a Black Bear will likely leave before you can see it. Bears are quite observant with an excellent sense of smell. And, while their sight is a bit more nearsighted than ours, they see almost as well and in color as we do. Their hearing is much better than ours as they are able to hear in the ultrasonic range. They are also quite smart with an IQ tested to be second only to primates.
If you do happen to encounter a bear before it knows you are there, it is best to back away slowly while facing the bear, leaving it with a clear and easy escape route. If the bear seems interested in you, open your jacket, wave your arms, make noise and make yourself look as big as possible. Do not turn around and run as this could cause the bear to chase you.
Black bears are naturally very curious and this curiosity combined with their intelligence is what helps them get the most food and nutrition out of their environment as well as escape danger. They have excellent memories and can recall places where berries were years earlier. If you suspect bears are in your area, you may want to bring your bird feeders inside. Otherwise, you may not only lose some feeders but also habituate a bear to living near people, which never ends well for the bear.
Bears are wonderful wildlife to have in our natural world, and we can easily coexist with them. They require a rich and diverse habitat to thrive, and thus are indicators of healthy habitat. When there have been sightings in Loudoun, their presence has elicited fear in some and excitement and awe in others.
I remember a wonderful photo that Bob and Jody Lyon showed us of a Black Bear at their back screen door, sniffing out the scents of the house, no doubt in search of a tasty morsel. Finding no reward, the bear walked on. At our house, we had a Black Bear visit as it moved along the stream valley and through the neighborhood. I watched this large bear lick seeds out of a bird feeder. Surely, it could have crushed the feeder with its strength, but instead it licked seeds gingerly from the ports. After a few minutes, it left as quickly and calmly as it had arrived, and I removed the feeders for a few days to discourage it from staying.
Education is at the heart of teaching acceptance and tolerance for living with Black Bears. They are not to be feared but appreciated and respected. They remind us of what is wild. The more we learn about Black Bears and teach others about these magnificent creatures, the richer our county and our own lives will be.
To learn more, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has an excellent video, Living with Black Bears, which is highly informative, click here.
Fund for Animals. Fund Facts: Living with Black Bears, 2004.
Masterson, Linda. Living with Bears, 2006.
Taylor, Dave. Black Bears: A Natural History, 2006.