Depending on where you live geographically, bears are most likely starting to emerge from their winter dens around mid to late March, through April. While we often refer to this denning period as hibernation, bears are not actually true hibernators. Instead practicing something called torpor, bears can actually awaken from their winter sleep much easier than an animal who would be practicing true hibernation (like a ground squirrel) could. Similar to hibernators, animals that experience torpor have decreased body temperatures, heart rates, breathing rates, and run on little to no food or water. However, bears do not HAVE to den up in the winter, but rather involuntarily fall into this state of torpor as their environmental conditions dictate. As long as there is enough food, there will be active bears and that is why their emergence timeline in the spring varies greatly.
The time that bears emerge from their dens may vary, but their motivations once they are out does not: FOOD. After a long winter sleep of depleting their fall fat reserves, these bears are going to be hungry and in search of a high caloric, nutritious meal. Some bears shed up to half their body weight during wintertime! And despite the abundance of natural food sources available in the springtime, bears still might choose to pursue human food sources instead. Bears in the fall can consume up to 20,000 calories a day in preparation for denning. However, bears that have recently emerged from their winter slumber consume between 5,000-8,000 calories per day, still 4x what an average human adult consumes on a daily basis.
In the spring, a bear’s diet consists of tender grasses, shoots, sedges, leaf buds, berries, insects, and sometimes small animals like fawns. Now let’s compare this natural food to the food a bear could find in our own backyards. If a typical bear needs to consume around 5,000 calories/day, that bear would need to find, forage for, and consume about 59 cups of blueberries per day to satisfy their caloric needs. However, one typical 7-pound bird feeder can have over 18,000 calories alone!! And all they have to do is knock over the feeder to get it. Bears are food driven, but they are also extremely smart and putting in less effort for probably a tastier meal is preferred if they can get their paws on it. It’s up to us to make sure they don’t.
The phrase “A fed bear is a dead bear” is a common expression used when educating the public on preventing food habituated bears. Sadly, this nomenclature has much truth to it. Once a bear finds these high calorie food sources, they don’t soon forget about them and oftentimes return back looking for more. One of the most common human food sources that bears are attracted to is bird feeders. These calorie-rich, high fat feeds and suets are easily accessible and are what we call the “gateway drug” to a food habituated bear. Once a bear finds a bird feeder, they almost always become a problem. Food habituated bears begin to lose their natural fear of humans and actually associate humans with food. This creates a very dangerous situation for both humans and the bear. These problem bears are often scared away, relocated, and sadly euthanized if the problem persists.
Other attractants to bears are trash cans, grills, pet food, beehives, compost piles, and gardens. The good news is that with a little information, you can make a huge impact on any bears that might live around you. There are simple steps to take that can drastically reduce the likelihood of a bear becoming a nuisance in your neighborhood. First, storing trash cans and grills in a sealed building, like the garage, will help minimize bear conflicts. For people with gardens, compost piles, or apiaries, electric fencing is a very effective tool in deterring a wandering bear. And lastly, removing bird feeders when bears are active. Winter is the best time to feed the birds, as that is when they really need the extra help, and also when bears will be sleeping. Like mentioned earlier, bear activity can vary from place to place, so checking with your local wildlife agency first is a good idea.
A few ways to attract birds without bird feeders are listed below:
- Bird baths or running water
- Nest boxes
- Native wildflowers and plants
With just a few simple changes to your everyday routine, you can both continue to attract birds and help protect nearby bears. For more information on living in bear country and how to create a BearWise Community near you, visit https://bearwise.org.
Have you ever had a wild bear visit your property?
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