Wendy Hall, my wife and co-director of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington, rescued Barnaby the bear with a Have-a-Heart trap last September.
Skinny and gaunt, starving and mangy, riddled with internal and external parasites, and less than thirty five pounds, Barnaby was in real tough shape. For a black bear more than a year old, these conditions could be potentially fatal, and we weren’t sure he would live.
Two months later, Barnaby had not only put on 100 pounds, but somewhere between the two months when he began to hibernate in November, and mid-January, Barnaby turned into Barnabee, and gave birth to two cubs. How did this happen?
Bears are like us in the sense that they are omnivorous, and can eat just about anything we can eat, and many things we won’t eat. Bears spend hours eating bugs, which are much more nutritious than anything we eat. Big Macs are 20% protein, while grasshoppers are 85%. In fact, on average, black bears and grizzly bears eat less meat than we do, even though their systems are much better evolved for eating raw meat. They are scavengers and opportunists par excellence. If bears aren’t doing well in an ecosystem – and assuming there aren’t other factors like massive clearing or deforestation, toxic spills, serious climate disruption etc. – it probably means there is something going on in their environment, which is not good for any of the critters living there. This is why we often call bears “indicator species”.
Like other wild animals, bears are basically prisoners of the conditions of their natural year. They can’t escape the seasons the way we do, and will do their best to den up, and use their own thermo-regulation to survive winter. Wolves are pretty strict carnivores, and much better hunters than bears. As with most other mammals, starvation is their biggest threat, but wolves are better equipped to survive winter because their large prey are also out and about, just as moose and deer are more specialized in what they eat, and more efficient than bears at browsing a bare living out of the period when new growth is dormant and their food is also greatly reduced.
All these large mammals grow efficient winter coats, so everything else being equal, it’s generally not the cold that kills them, but lack of nutrition, which may trigger weight loss and then finally starvation and hypothermia. There are, however, opportunistic bears, like some of the grizzly boars in Yellowstone, who make a living in winter, by following and driving wolf packs away from carcasses and winter kills. In the cruel irony of nature, these tactics may backfire if the wolves themselves starve, which happens.
Hibernation is an attempt to get through a period of low food availability, by reducing metabolism, temperature and heart rate, and in the case of bears, slowly burning the fat accumulated during “hard mast”, the fatty nuts of autumn, the acorns, hazelnuts, etc. Unlike obligate or “true hibernators”, bear hibernation more resembles a sort of torpor. While its heart rate may drop to a fifth of its normal rate of about 50 beats per minute, a bear’s temperature will only drop slightly, enabling sows to give birth and begin nursing cubs during virtual starvation in January. They may not eat or drink water during hibernation, but on warm winter days, bears may rouse, get up and walk about.
Sows normally start having cubs between their third and fifth year, so we’re guessing that Barnaby was probably born in January of 2013, weighed about 12 ounces, and would have fit in the palm of your hand. Ideally, after months of suckling on Mom, she and her siblings would be large enough and mobile enough by late April or early May, to begin following mom around. Initially, she would continue in a state of biochemical narcosis, still metabolizing fat, while losing weight, and nursing her cubs, who are about ten pounds then, and growing rapidly.
After a week or so, mom starts foraging, finding squirrel caches left over from winter, eating grasses, skunk cabbage and fiddleheads, teaching her cubs what to eat and where to find it. Catkins, roots, corms, early fruits and leaves, vegetation low in woody cellulose, round out the spring diet. Carrion, the bodies of animals killed by winter, as well as any deer fawns or moose calves the bears come across while foraging, bring much needed protein, as do ants, ant pupae, yellow jackets and bees, which appear on the menu in June.
If a cub gets separated from mom during this period, or mom is struck by a car, the mortality rate among cubs is related to how much they’ve learned about foraging, how much forage they can locate, and how lucky they may be in hooking up with another mom and her litter, or learning to exploit the many opportunities we give bears to steal food from us. At this size, they are in great danger from cars, or any large creature, including other bears. One of the reason that dogs are man’s best friend, is that dogs are pretty much genetically gray wolves, and wolf packs are families year round, so human families are a structure wolves and dogs can relate to and reinforce. With bears, however, boars generally don’t participate in raising their own cubs, and will occasionally kill cubs, with the aim of bringing mom from lactation to estrus in a short period.
Cubs usually den up with Mom for their second winter. Sows begin rejecting their cubs when the cubs are about 18 months old, driving them away, thus enabling the sow to mate again. Siblings may begin their exile together, and stay together while food is plentiful, and then begin more solitary lives during periods when there is less food to share, and traveling together becomes counter-productive. Female cubs may try to establish territories surrounding Mom’s territory, a security arrangement which benefits both mom and cubs, while young males are more likely to wander, while avoiding territories of older, more established boars.
Boars smell sows going into estrus in late June and early July, and may begin tailing prospective females, waiting for signs of receptivity. Some boars forage alongside their prospective sow, waiting for her to signal readiness, also fending off approaches by other males, who may test their resolve with respect to a favored sow. Comically enough, much of this effort may be wasted, as sows are promiscuous, and may end up mating with more than one boar anyway, with the interesting result that litters may have multiple fathers. Copulation may last up to 30 minutes, but unlike humans, the implanting of the blastocyst to the uterine wall, the start of fetal development, is delayed until late Fall, a factor which played large in Barnaby’s future.
Bear weights vary seasonally and dramatically through the year. Bears generally try to go into hibernation weighing up to one and a half times what they weighed coming out of hibernation, exclusive of any growth that year. As a contrast, wolves, which are active as a family throughout the year, are born in late April-early May, and are pretty much full grown by their first winter, a critical factor in surviving winter. Boars seem to focus more on mating than do sows, with the result that sows ingest proportionally more food during mating season, while boars continue to lose weight during the mating season, and therefore have more to gain by Fall. Unlike wolves, both male and female bears tend to continue adding physical mass every year, even though their average weight during any given year swings with the season.
The critical period of “soft mast” follows mating season. The berry crops start bearing fruit, pin cherries, sarsaparilla berries and blueberries in July, and red raspberries, choke cherries, blackberries and dogwood fruits in August. In productive years, there may be plenty of soft mast for everyone, so a rich crop of soft mast may find black bears ignoring territories, and eating these berries exclusively for many days, often within sight of one another, again completely unlike wolf packs, which jealously defend territories against poaching intruder wolves.
Unfortunately for Adirondack black bears, the mild drought of summer 2015, was followed by the more serious drought of the following summer. With much thinner berry crops, bears became desperate, and began showing up more in back yards at pet food bowls, unclean grills, bird feeders, garbage cans, and around camp sites. Many skinny underweight bears were observed, but if they can get adequate nutrition during the hard mast period, and can find a den, which can be anything from the underside of an uprooted tree, a cavity within a tree, a cave or even the underside of a seasonal cabin’s porch, they may make it through winter.
Sows generally reach mating age between 3 and 5 years, and here begins the mystery of Barnaby last September. Wild animals generally don’t understand that a wildlife rehabilitator is trying to help, and so our efforts are restrained and as non-intrusive as we can make them. For an animal who is not actually in shock, the ordeal of being physically handled by a creature much larger than itself can be quite traumatic.
Barnaby was extremely weak, but not exactly eager to be examined. At the same time, you don’t wish to sedate an animal in that condition, as the stress could be fatal, and gender was certainly not the hot issue at that point. We had to treat internal and external parasites, such as round worms and sarcoptic mange, while beginning a routine of nutritional supplements to get her weight up and address anemia and the lack of electrolytes. We generally expect boars, with their preoccupation with mating, to be more affected by a failed berry crop, thus continuing the weight loss begun during last year’s hibernation. We also assumed that Barnaby’s diminutive size pointed to a much younger bear.
In any case, Barnaby was housed in a 20’ by 40’ bear rehab enclosure, away from the rest of the animal enclosures. The enclosure has a steady water supply, climbing apparatus for exercise, and a small den built into one corner, into which Barnaby could drag bales of hay for the approaching winter. We reached out to our local and remote followers through Face Book, and they responded with generous donations of acorns, honey, apples, etc. Our UPS guy was constantly amused by the fact that followers were collecting acorns, and actually shipping them to Barnaby at the Refuge in large boxes, where in the shipping and containment cost more than the contents of the boxes.
By mid October, it became clear that Barnaby was going to not only survive, but would be a good candidate for release in the Spring if she made it through the winter. We figured she might forgo hibernation, as do bears who have steady access to winter food sources. But no, by early November, she was showing signs of slowing her eating pace, and spending more and more time in her den. Once hibernation begins, there’s not much for us to do, but occasionally go by, climb an outside ladder which afforded a partial view of the inside of the den and listen. Chris Mattern, a Paul Smith graduate who interned at Fortress of the Bears in Sitka, is our bear specialist, and one day, while listening, he thought he heard faint whimpering and suckling sounds. We looked into the den, and Barnaby was alert, raising her head to look back at us, but not her body. Ah-ha! We placed a trail cam for 24 hours in the enclosure to confirm what we already suspected, and sure enough, Barnaby had become Barnabee, and was nursing two cubs.
Rehabbers are generalists who often work with vets in the case of broken bones and other specialized needs for individual animals. In the lingo of maintaining automobiles, we’re not the mechanics who work on, and rebuild the engine, but rather more the ones who do diagnostics, tune-ups and fluid changes. At the same time, mammal physiology is mammal physiology. All mammals have the same mechanics built into different frames, which is why your vet can work on so many models. When we were losing my father to heart disease, it was not so much my Rheumatologist son-in- law who helped translate for us what my father’s heart doctors were trying to explain to us, but my oldest son who is a veterinary cardiologist. A mammal’s heart is a mammal’s heart, and they all work the same way.
For animals like wolves and bears, who are generally not willing to jump into cars for a ride to the vet, we call in mobile vets like Dr. Kate Donis, to help in diagnosis and prescribed treatment, while birds of prey from eagles to small owls and hawks, are much easier to transport from Rehab Center to helpful vets, like Dr. Eric Eaglefeather in Plattsburg.
In the case of Barnaby the bear, we have been talking to ursine experts who have more experience studying and monitoring wild bears than we have, and they seem to be uniformly surprised that, even with a crash diet of nutritional supplements, Barnaby could not only gain back 100 pounds in September and October, but that the timing between her mating last June, her subsequent presumed weight loss during the drought, and her weight and health recovery in time for her body to accept egg implantation in November, is something they haven’t seen in wild bears. The timing of these developments is almost bizarrely convenient, as sows who are starving in the fall, will generally reabsorb their floating blastocysts, to prevent adding the stress of giving birth during hibernation.
We suspect that Barnabee has received nutritional help from sympathetic people during periods of hardship in the past, which may help explain her survival up until the time she reached us. Feeding bears is always a very bad idea, because it teaches bears to depend on people for food, and even to associate people with food. If you’re camping in one of the High Peaks lean-tos, and you feed an inquisitive bear, either on purpose or through carelessly allowing access to your food stores, you pretty much insure that future occupants of that lean-to will be meeting that same bear, as bears continually return to check prior food sources.
At the same time, bears can be broken of their bad habits, if they have access to natural foods within their range. After all, it’s not like the bear is dying to meet you. He just wants your lunch.
Prior to releasing Barnabee and her cubs in May, Chris and our youngest son Alex, who is one of the main wildlife handlers at the Refuge, will be scouting potential release sites, which will not only be extremely remote, but rich in natural bear spring foods, such as skunk cabbage, and fiddleheads, etc. We’ll also start providing Barnabee with these foods prior to her release, so that she will be familiar with them, and seek them out in her new territory. For those of our followers who wish to donate food again, check with us in April, as we’ll be looking for donations of these natural foods to help condition Barnabee and her cubs.