Weighing in at up to 500 pounds, measuring seven feet long, and strong enough to flip over a 300 pound rock with just one paw, the black bear (Ursus americanus), is the largest and most formidable predator in the Virginia Appalachians.
That said, it’s also a great animal to illustrate my top rule in nature:
“Do not be afraid. Be cautious.”
Fear in nature makes us do stupid things – like getting scared by a spider and jumping up to run away so fast that you miss a step and twist your ankle.
Caution, however, lets us observe nature without getting hurt.
Black bears require caution and respect. They may be as cute as a childhood teddy bear from a distance, but you don’t want to get up close and personal with their inch -and-a-half long teeth and claws.
These large, furry mascots of the woods do not see humans as prey, and generally only menace or attack humans in an “I’m the mama bear and you’re too close to my babies” situation. (There’s a reason we call human mothers “Mama Bear” when they’re angry, aggressive, and protective of their kids. You don’t want to mess with either kind of mama bear.)
Black bears are omnivores, feeding mostly on wild berries, leaves and stems of plants, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Big animals just aren’t on its menu.
True to stereotype, though, they do love to eat honey. They climb trees with relative ease (the long claws come in handy there) and their mouths aren’t bothered by bee stings which, to put it in human terms, makes honey a crunchy-sweet snack with carbs for energy and lean bee protein for muscle building.
Not that they always eat healthy. They will happily sniff out and steal “pick-i-nick baskets” and other human food, which is why smart (cautious) backwoods campers know to suspend their food supplies in a hanging bag in a tree a good 40 yards away from their tents.
Now for the stereotype killer: black bears do not hibernate. True hibernators’ bodies drop their temperature to within a few degrees of the ambient temp in their den and they dramatically reduce their heart rates to slow their metabolism to a molasses-like crawl all winter.
Black bears do allow their heart rate to drop dramatically (around 55 beats per minute when active, 8-12 beats per minute while sleeping), but their body temperature only cools slightly, from about 100 degrees Fahrenheit down to around 88 degrees. This allows them to wake up much more quickly. This low-heart rate, high-body temperature rest is called “torpor”. I like to think of it as a six month sleepy season. Though the bears gorge themselves before bed in October, they can wake up on warm days to forage for a midnight (mid-season) snack.
During that sleepy season, which can last from mid-March to early May here in Virginia, mama bears will give birth to one or two cubs, who will nurse in the den until spring, using up the last of her fat reserves. So, in spring, you have just-woken-up, super hungry new mamas.
Think of them as if they’re me before I get my morning coffee; you want to give them a lot of personal space, appreciate from a distance, and be cautious.
For more great black bear info, check out these web pages:
- Black Bear Facts
- North American Bear Center
- Back Scratch Fever (my personal favorite – disco bears!)