Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Encountering a Lone Bear Cub in Autumn?

bear sow and cubs

At Adirondack Wildlife, we are receiving one or two calls a day about reportedly orphaned bear cubs, and since we have experience with both wild and captive-bred bears, and since bear activity is very seasonal in nature, here is what we believe is happening. Black bear hibernation is not about the cooler temperatures of winter, but rather the availability of food.

While we humans tend to want to be slim and attractive, bears want to be as fat as possible to help them survive the winter months. Bears grow very thick coats to neutralize the cold, and they spend most of the Fall taking on as many calories as they can, building up their weight, and slowly metabolizing the excess weight over the winter months. 

Ninety percent of what black bears and grizzlies eat tend to be grasses and grains, wild fruit, berries, and vegetation. Bears are opportunistic and will eat meat when available through scavenging or predation, but sometimes, for example the two captive bred sow bears many of you met at the Wildlife Refuge, turn out to be vegans, who wouldn’t touch meat, probably because they were spoiled with a wide range of the foods listed above. Favorite autumn foods of Adirondack black bears are acorns, beechnuts, hobblebush, apples and any pumpkins or veggies still in the field.

Bear hibernation is not sleeping, but more like entering a state of torpor, minimizing physical movement to preserve energy. When our two bears stopped eating, around the end of November, they would begin to go in and out of the den, as though to check things out, while building a nest out of the three or four bales of hay we’d toss in the den. They would finally settle in, and I would check on them every day to be sure their hibernation was going well. I’d stick my head into the den, and they would raise their heads briefly to look at me. Florida black bears only hibernate for about a month, while those in the Yukon’s longer winter, six months is more the norm.

This time of year, barren sows and boars are probably still foraging, taking advantage of any food they can locate. Pregnant sows and sows with “cubs of the year”, meaning cubs born last January, during last winter’s hibernation, are already hibernating. Cubs can get separated from their moms, in which case they may try to find an apple tree, with its bounty of fruit, and they’ll hang around, often sleeping in the tree.

They may cry, attempting to attract mom, who may periodically wander outside her den, trying to smell or hear the missing cub. Observe the cub, and check its condition: this time of year, cubs should weigh between 35 and 50 lbs., keeping in mind that boars weigh more than sows. If they appear hearty, roundish and thickly furred, it means they’re harvesting enough nutrition to probably survive the winter. Keep in mind, bears do not eat, drink, pee or poop during hibernation, though on a balmy winter day, they’re like us, and may go for a walk.

The cub may be able to hibernate on its own, and it may find a porch to spend the winter under, a small cave or cluster of boulders, or a toppled tree’s roots. It goes without saying that one should never disturb a hibernating bear, so areas with free ranging dogs may prove challenging for the bear. 

bottle feeding cubs

Black bear cubs being bottle fed by the late Wendy Hall and Caroline Matuck. Photo by Stephen Hall

If the cub appears emaciated, there’s a problem and obviously the cub is not getting enough nutrition.  If this describes what you’re seeing or hearing, you may be tempted to call the DEC, who will probably tell you they won’t interfere with natural processes in Nature. In New York, we do have wildlife rehabilitators who are licensed to rescue, rehab and release bears, and a good place to start is North Country Wildcare, at 518-964-6740. Keep in mind that rehabilitators can only help animals they can catch, which in the case of cubs, will require a have-a-heart trap

Bears are most closely related to pigs, and the latter are often considered the most intelligent animal after primates (for example, us), elephants and dolphins. Never, never, never feed bears, as they are intelligent territorial creatures of habit, and will return to and check out anywhere they’ve found food in the past. This will acclimate bears to people, which is the usual cause of bears being euthanized, hence the phrase, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

Photo at top by Stephen Hall

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Steve and Wendy Hall run the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington. They've been rehabbing and releasing wild animals for over 45 years, specialize in predators, keep wolves as the cornerstone of their educational program, and have lived in the Adirondacks for the past 20 years. The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge became a non-profit about 10 years ago.Visit to learn more.

8 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Can we get a shout-out for the intelligence and tenacity of raccoons?? Very dexterous if nothing else.

  2. AdirondackAl says:

    Thank you. Very informative article

  3. Matt says:

    Mostly accurate. Bottle feeding cubs can be necessary early on, but will quickly habituate them too. They start eating and drinking out of a bowl very early. Finally, they are not closely related to pigs, that is a myth/old wives tale.

    • Thanks for the correction, Matt, but I believe you meant an old sow’s tail. You did, however, bring up an important point. If folks are in an area where bears visit, never leave pet food bowls outside, and keep the grill clean and covered, as bears have incredible noses. Bottom line, think like the bear: odors can encourage bears to visit your house.

  4. Judy Fuhr says:

    So glad to see writings by you and keeping Wendy’s memory alive.

  5. Charlie Stehlin says:

    The poor wild animals! Things are changing for them too! There’s no such thing as natural cycles anymore or, at the very least, the natural cycles are becoming altered cycles due to humankind, especially if it is true that man is the demon who is creating the warming of this our only home which the scientists have been saying is the case. ‘What warming?’ some still challenge!

     I imagine a planet with wildlife at zero population even if it is one hundred years away. No butterflies, no bees, no bats…. Wolves will be gone by then surely. They’ll be no shortage of humans though…..unless of course a misfit we create somehow navigates his way to ‘the button’ and ends it all. It’s all up for grabs! It depends on us which path we choose, and so far that path appears to be a very narrow one and getting narrower by the moment…. seemingly. I know! Let’s bring more children into this paradise! That’ll solve everything!

  6. louis curth says:

    Well said Charlie. We are betraying our kids and all of nature.

    “Many young people are experiencing grief and frustration and anxiety and elements of betrayal by adults and other generations,” says Dr. Kelsey Hudson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in climate change.

    From Coping with climate change: Advice for kids — from kids

  7. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Some people will never get it Louis! What is as clear as day seen by some, is incapable of being seen by others, even if it were enclosing them on all sides. What is taking shape today was talked about 200 years ago when science was looked-up to and highly regarded in all fields. Even lawyers had to know science back in them days, else they couldn’t be a lawyer. I submit thus:

    “A lawyer to be distinguished at the present day must not only be well versed in technical learning, but have a general acquaintance with the literature and science of the times. The advancements of the age in metaphysics, physics, and polite literature, give an elevation to feeling, and a character to knowledge. The great lawyers of the present day bring all the lights of science to raise and adorn the profession.”
    From: Biographical Sketches of Eminent Lawyers, Statesmen, and Men of Letters Samuel Knapp 1821 pages 22-23

    Things are not what they used to be Louis, and if it were up to some we’d be back in the ‘Dark ages’ next week, like they are in, say….Afghanistan.

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