Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Adirondack Black Bears Are Active

With all the unseasonably balmy weather we’ve had this month, and all the advanced blooming and migrations, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone that the bears are awake and searching for food. In fact, I’m surprised that the first signs of bear activity only appeared this weekend. Unfortunately, these signs were in my back yard, where the bear broke through the fence and ravaged two birdfeeder poles and something like seven bird feeders, not to mention my compost bin. Yes, the bears are awake.

Usually, in the scheme of things, male bears are the last to turn in for the winter, and the first to come out. That said, females without cubs are likely to emerge early, too. These animals have gone all winter without food, so when they emerge, they are hungry – who wouldn’t be? But the thing is, there isn’t a whole lot of food available yet, especially for something the size of a black bear.

The black bear (Ursus americana) is an omnivore: it will eat whatever it can find. The majority of a bear’s diet, however, is plant material. If we look around outside right now, there isn’t a lot of plant material available yet. For example, in the spring bears are snacking on the young leaves of white ash and wood fern leaflets. So far, there are no young leaves or ferns to eat. Grasses and forbes, soft green stuff you might find in your yard or along the banks of streams and ponds, are another large component of the spring diet. Take a good look – the greenery is only just starting to sprout. It’d be a struggle to gain a mouthful without a lot of grazing. No wonder the animals are hungry.

On the other hand, insects have been fairly plentiful this spring. At any time of year a bear can cuff apart a rotting log or tree and snarf up the insects it finds, primarily ants and beetles. Insects are very high in protein and are therefore highly nutritious. “They” say that you can starve to death eating rabbits (because they are so lean), but you can survive on a diet of insects. Mmm.

A bear is not above snacking on a little carrion, should the opportunity arise. The thing is, by now most carrion from winter has been pretty well picked over by foxes, coyotes, ravens, martens, etc. True, the roadkill rate goes up in the spring, so “fresh” food can be found along roadsides, but most bears are not hanging out the verge hoping to find a bit of flattened fauna – they are in the woods away from this bounty, at least until hunger drives them towards towns.

When summer rolls around, bears have a much easier time of it as berries and other soft fruits ripen. Fall is the time of nuts and more fruits, high-fat foods upon which the bears can bulk up in preparation for their long winter naps. But spring, especially early spring, is simply not a time of plenty, so it is perfectly understandable for a bear to wander onto “our” turf in search of something to qualm the grumblings of its belly.

So, here are your nature tips for the day:

1. Bring in your birdfeeders at night.
2. Don’t put any smellables in your compost (no meat, no dairy).
3. Don’t leave the dog/cat food out at night.
4. Clean the barbie well after you’ve grilled your dinner.
5. Don’t leave your garbage out – bring it indoors or take it to the transfer station!
6. If you see a bear, do not panic. Make loud noises and make yourself look big. Dollars to donuts it will run away.

In the meantime, maybe we should all be a little more understanding when a bear raids our feeders. This is a time of great scarcity, hard on the heels of a winter-long fast. Bears tend to lose a lot of weight in the spring as they forage for any small quantity of food they can find, living off the remains of the fat they stored up for the winter. A little caution and common sense on our part will cut down on ursine prowlers. After all, bears only come to us for food because they know it is there. Remove the temptation, and the bears will go away.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

2 Responses

  1. Ellen Rathbone says:

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