Tuesday marked the first day of Spring. You may have noticed or heard the return of robins, bluebirds, and geese. While we often don’t see them, mammals will begin to emerge from their dens and underground areas of hibernation. One of these mammals is the Black Bear.
These cute and cuddly animals begin venturing out around the first week of April. After having “hibernated” for the past several months, they will be looking for food (foraging) first. Black bears mainly eat plant parts–buds of trees in early spring and they are notoriously known to eat berries in summer. A favorite food is the nut from hazelnut trees. They are also opportunists: if people leave food, garbage, bird feeders, or uncovered compost bins out where they can smell it, they will mostly likely eat whatever they can reach. This gives them the reputation of being ‘nuisance’ animals. We are using or living in a habitat they prefer (sometimes young males wander outside of their habitat)…maybe they think we are the nuisance.
Now, hibernating isn’t actually what they are doing during the winter months. Scientists call it ‘torpor’ which sounds like stupor, maybe that’s where they came up with it. Torpor is not a true hibernation. Many arctic animals who have no winter food source (plants or bugs) hibernate to save energy since they are unable to replenish energy: their body temperature drops to match the outdoor temperature, their heart rate drops and their breathing slows. Torpor is a little different in that the bears’ body temperatures are relatively high and they are able to wake. Female bears give birth during this time (around mid-January) and wake to rearrange themselves to accommodate their cubs and return to sleep. This may be why there is a saying: “don’t poke a sleeping bear” because they can awake easily, whereas true hibernators will awake for nothing.
The black bears of the Midwest are not as dangerous as Grizzlies or Polar bears. This doesn’t change the fact that they are very large animals. They can reach up to 7 feet tall (more impressive when they stand on their hind legs) and average 500 pounds. It’s this body size that allows them to sleep in torpor rather than hibernate–they have larger fat stores than a tiny little chipmunk. So, those cute little cubs that you so want to pet and cuddle are generally protected by a female somewhere in the 5′, 300 pound range. Not something people generally want to cross. They really aren’t something to fear though. As with most wild animals, a good healthy respect will go along way, and especially keep your wits about you in the spring when they are famished.