Backyard Naturalist: Oh, to be a bear in winter

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  • A black bear is captured on a trail camera. Photo by Eric Aldrich

  • A baby bear finds a comfy spot up in a tree. Photo by Polly Pattison

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/24/2020 10:20:52 AM

I’m sure I’m not the only one that thinks being human this year is hard. How many of us have looked at our family pets and felt jealous? They aren’t worrying about a global pandemic. Have you lingered on a mountain top, too, imagining yourself soaring south with the hawks, leaving the stuff of people far behind?

Lately, now, as the earth turns towards the dark and cold, I find myself wishing I was living in the skin of Ursus americanus, an American black bear.

I’d find an upturned tree with a hollow just big enough for me to crawl under and then I would turn my back on the cold world and rest. I’d stay tucked away snoozing, stretching and maybe dreaming until our world spins back to the light, when the ground will be soft again, and green will cloak the earth.

But just know if you were a black bear, winter dens are nothing fancy. From brush piles and rocky outcrops to hollow trees and logging slash, they don’t need much. In their den, everything slows down – their heart rate, body temperature, and their metabolic activity. They do not defecate, urinate or eat.

They are hibernating but are not considered true hibernators, like woodchucks. A hibernating woodchuck cannot be aroused. Black bears can become active if they are disturbed or need to defend themselves. As New Hampshire’s Fish and Game’s wildlife biologist Mark Ellingwood shares “I can tell you from experience that when you crawl into a bear den, the bear is often looking at you and if you aren’t measured in your approach, it can literally run off.”

Snugged in the den, bears are quietly doing some amazing things: their bodies metabolize stored fat, providing them with water and 4,000 calories per day; muscles and tissues are converted into protein and throughout this all, mother bears are giving birth to anywhere from one to three cubs that they nurse and care for in the den.

For black bears to survive their long rest, they must be preppers. They are busy summer and fall, filling their bellies. Decreasing daylight during late summer, triggers hormonal changes and sets bears on a path of increased feeding. Even their metabolism shifts to make the most of the foods they consume. As they gorge, their bodies become more efficient at assimilating carbohydrates and converting them into fat. In years rich with wild foods, bears can gain up to 30 pounds a week. During lean years, they experience increased mortality, failure to reproduce and an increase in negative conflicts with humans.

Eating becomes their fulltime job and as Ellingwood, says, “Black bear are a large mobile stomach attached to an incredible food-searching nose.” Think of the bear’s sense of smell as one of its survival superpowers, leading it to the food resources it needs before winter sets in. Our native bruin takes top place honors for its sense of smell in the mammal kingdom. With the power of their sniff being 2,100 times better than a human’s, they have been documented traveling over 18 miles on a whiff of something tasty.

During their fall feeding, bears follow their noses to foods high in protein and rich in fat and sugars, like acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts, berries, fruit and, of course, birdseed. Once they find a valuable food source, then they really tuck in. A Minnesota bear was once observed consuming 2,605 hazelnuts in one sitting. That’s equivalent to eating 7 pounds of food at once.

When the temperatures begin to drop and food becomes harder to find, bears take to their dens. There is an order to denning, as Ellingwood describes, “Females den earlier than males, pregnant females before non-pregnant females. Condition and energetic needs obviously come into play. In some way it’s an energy budget decision being made by bears, as influenced by size, reproductive status, and food availability.”

Right now, this December, some bears are still out, shuffling through our woodlands snuffling up acorns and sniffing out our birdfeeders. Our warm fall, abundant acorn crop, and backyard bird feeding habit are all factors contributing to bears staying up late this year. Keep your birdfeeders packed away, your garbage and pet/livestock foods secure, your grill clean and your bee hives fenced until we have a real solid cold snap. Help the bears take the cue that it is time to put this world on hold for a while. Don’t you want to, also?

Just this morning, on my walk, I wandered along a wild section of Hancock’s Moose Brook. In the patches of softening snow, I came across the lumbering trail of a solitary bear. I ran my finger along the print as if I could rub a bit of its wildness into my soul. This is as close as I can come to being a bear but in fact, there are all different ways to survive the dark until it is light again.

Susie Spikol is the Community Program Director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock.

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