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Reflections on Bear Hibernation and Behavior

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Since moving to the mountains of Southern Colorado, we have encountered many black bears and because of those encounters, we have learned much about the species. I have posted several articles on bears in the past but I’m not sure enough can be said about these interesting animals.

I seem to be constantly looking up black bear characteristics or traits on the internet to be better informed. Perhaps one of the best sources of information and a site I access is called the North American Bear Center in Minnesota (NABC). There seems to be an abundance of misinformation about bears that circulates and every time there is a human encounter that goes bad, the bear is the one pictured in a bad light.

This time of year, our bears are in hibernation and being able to do that has always fascinated me. Now that we have them around frequently and I have been able to observe them over the years, I have come to really appreciate this often maligned animal. When it comes to parenting, I believe the human species could learn much from the black bear.

I have observed the mother bear with their cubs on many occasions and they are a no-nonsense parent to the young. When the cub does something wrong, the mother is not at all hesitant to make a firm correction. I also have witnessed the love and affection they demonstrate and how protective they are of their vulnerable young — all aimed to help the cub live on their own in the wild.

We once had a young cub (very small) wander through our property. It was wet and looked miserable but we knew enough not to go to its aid. A short while after it left, we saw the mother coming down the road with a determination I had never witnessed on a mother bear before. It would have been a huge mistake to get between her and her cub, which was probably several hundred yards away by then, as she was in no mood to be deterred from her objective.

I find it incredible that bears and other smaller critters can hibernate. Our winters are sometimes 7+ months long, and for any animal to put itself into a dormant state for that long is simply amazing. Their heart rate and metabolic rate is greatly reduced. It is during this hibernation period that they give birth.

During this hibernation they live off the body fat they have stored up. Just prior to hibernation, they consume huge amounts of water and food. From what I have observed, they eat mostly grasses, vegetation, berries and insects. We note in the fall rotten logs torn apart where the bear has apparently been seeking ants and grubs. While they hibernate, they do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate.

I had always heard that they eat roughage to create a plug in their intestine. From reading the NABC data, they actually create that plug with secretions and residual matter in their intestinal tract. The former was strictly myth. Just imagine if we humans could hibernate and shut down our systems where our bodies would live off our body fat. Eureka! Diets and obesity treatments would no longer be needed.

We have discovered a den that has been used over the years by bears to hibernate toward the top of our mountain in a prominent rock outcropping. It is just large enough to accommodate a full-grown bear and there is evidence they are using it regularly. Being equipped with the ability to hibernate and give birth is a unique ability that is mostly associated with black bears.

Incidentally, black bear is a species and while most are black in color, I have witnessed them blonde and various shades of brown. I can see why teddy bears are so popular with people of all ages, because if you have ever seen a black bear cub up close they, are adorable.

I have observed the incredible strength of bears and perhaps that is why people fear them. I have had to use a 5-foot steel pry bar to move the same rock that I observed a black bear move with one arm effortlessly. They will roll over or lift up a large rock to get at the edible insects under the rock.

Their strength is certainly something to be cautious of, but I have not run into any purely aggressive black bears. Usually they are curious or just making sure we are no threat to them. When there is a bear-human encounter and the human is injured, it always seems to be reported all the news venues. Such stories seem to demonize the bear and do not hold the human accountable for the encounter — hence the bear usually pays with its life.

If the human doesn’t suddenly surprise the bear, and if the human remains calm and talks in a calm voice and slowly backs away giving the bear space, the chances for a sudden encounter ending favorably for both human and bear is greatly enhanced. If we humans emit a scent of fear that triggers an attack by a bear, every encounter would end with an attack. It would be the very rare human who, when suddenly encountering a bear, isn’t afraid. It is your body movements and how you conduct yourself that presents a threat, or not, to a bear.

It seems every year we have at least one unexpected encounter and we have yet to have a serious encounter from a black bear in 18 years. Living with nature, I find the black bears’ ability to hibernate for 7 months a year as astounding as the tiny hummingbirds ability to migrate hundreds of miles and stop at the very same spot along the way each year and then to return to a feeders specific location.

Nature is amazing and the hibernation ability of the black bear is especially interesting to me.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their wildlife observations and lifestyle go to: McElmurray's Mountain Retreat. Read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

Source: North American Bear Center.


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