Characteristics of Black Bears

Black Bears, also known as the American Bear (Ursus Americanus), are the most common single bear species. There are 80 different North American Bear species; many of these are considered variants of the brown and grizzly bear.  Though most commonly considered black in color they are actually color phases of the blue-black, cinnamon or blue-gray glacier bear.

They are solitary creatures by nature, communing only during mating season.  Standing on their hind legs they range from 5 to 6 feet in height and 3 feet at shoulder.  At maturity they can weigh as little a 200 pounds to as much as 600 pounds.  On average, Black bears in the southern mountains range for females, 250 to 300 pounds and male 300 to 400 pounds.  The only color highlights on their mostly dark fur are brown patches on their face and sometimes white chest markings. 

A Black bear living under normal conditions can live well into their 30’s while bears living nearer to human population live an average of 25% or less time due to dangers of human/bear conflict and obtainable garbage.  Their territory can range from a 5 square mile area for females and as much as a 25 square miles or more for young males that are establishing their own grounds, an area where 100 other bears might populate.  A thriving black bear population reflects overall health in the forest.  Female Black Bears tend to stay in more confined familiar areas, knowing what’s commonly available for their cub’s provisions and a familiar den. 

Black Bears have often been wrongly considered to be sluggish and oblivious to what going on around them.  That they lack intelligence, have poor hearing and eyesight and can be fiercely aggressive.

The reason for their general slow moving lumbering gait is a result of their hindquarters being longer in portion to their front limbs. The Black Bear’s nose and ears are comparable to a dog’s keen sense, and their sight is as good as a monkey.  As intelligence goes some scientist believe they’re nearly as bright as primates.

They are extremely shy creatures not necessarily ferocious by nature.  Black Bears prefer solitude from humans, yet when confronted they’re more likely to indulge in mock-heroics before scampering up the nearest tree.  A bear might attack if they feel their cubs are in danger, if the bear feels personally threatened or if it’s a habitual bear looking for human food and is willing to take what it wants. 

Their nose is their guide; Black Bears have an exceptional sense of smell.  Comparable to both dogs and cats, bears have the ability to sense a present danger up to a mile away and like the feline and K9 crowd, black bears can sense friend or foe more by what they can smell, than see.  And what do they like to smell the most?  Anything they can eat!

From spring through summer they eat when it suits them and enjoy napping a lot, when fall approaches they stuff themselves on forest harvests in order to build up an adequate layer of nourishing fat for the winter season. During winter they mostly sleep but not a true hibernation.  Black Bears of the Southern Appalachian’s (Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains) are more active during winter season due to the warmer southern climate. An actual hibernation consists of lower body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.  Black Bears go into a winter sleep though their body temperature and metabolism stay near normal.  They wake up at times after long periods of sleep and will leave the den for short strolls then return for more deep sleep. I wouldn’t try waking one, and you should never count on them not being aware of your presence while they are sleeping.  Mothers have their cubs when in hibernation and can always sense an intrusion. 

Like humans, Black Bears are omnivorous, enjoying a large diet.  What do they like to eat?  Everything, that’s why it’s dangerous for them to create a habitat near humans. In the wild they eat a mostly 80% vegetarian diet though they are also classified as carnivores due to the basis of their tooth structure and a appetite for small mammals and fish when they can catch them. 

The Black Bear’s natural diet can consist of berries, nuts, roots, pinecones, pine seeds, fir needles, leaves, huckleberries, beechnuts, acorns, hickory nuts, honey and over 50 varieties of plant, not to mention the insects.  Bears not only eat honey, they also eat the bees from beehives; the stingers don’t seem to discourage them.  They also dine on carpenter ants from wood logs, grasshoppers, termites, yellow jacket and their nests and ant’s from anthills.  With anthills they put their paw out along the anthill and allow the ants to cover their paws then lick the ants up.

Black bears are carnivorous though it makes up only a small portion of their diet.  Though Black Bears do have large teeth they are considered too lazy when it comes to big game hunting, such as deer. They prefer to pursue small critters like squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, mice, pack rats, and any other mammal that burrow.   Adult male Black Bears will devour cubs that wander away from their mothers or cubs separated due to their mother’s unexpected death.  This isn’t to say a bear won’t chase down a deer if it’s hungry enough, using their 30 mph speed.  They just prefer easy resources, plus they’re good fishing mammals due to their excellent front paw dexterity.

A Black Bear’s scent is like their personal trademark, its how they communicate with each other.  Their scent derives from their fur, which is transferred onto anything they come into contact with. A common application of Black Bear scent last 24 to 48 hours as they intentionally rub their oils on rocks.  Trees or man-made structures can retain the scent for 3 or 4 weeks. Their individual scent makes each bear aware of another bear’s personal foraging area, it tells bears which other bears to avoid. Their scent can also show signs of gender, it can send out mating offers and express emotions such as fear.  Scent isn’t the only way they express their emotions.  The sound of their voice expresses how they feel such as happy, sad, angry, fretful or alarmed.

One life long pleasure for all Black Bears is climbing trees.  They begin climbing as cubs and continue all their lives. Black Bears make their sleeping dens in caves, large standing hollow trees, rocky overhangs or old decaying logs they dig out, where as their favorite daylight hangouts are trees, up in the branches out of harms way. 

Black Bears have great paw dexterity with their front feet, allowing them to be firm and gentle.  Their powerful hind legs add to their speed and climbing strength and they have excellent balance, a trait they learned as cubs.  Bears climb trees for safety, to rob beehives, to look around, to take a nap or just for the sake of it.  They make their way up the tree in a spiral motion before descending rump first until their bottoms make contact with the forest floor.

Black Bears are solitary creatures that naturally prefer to live in the forest away from the human population, although don’t let their shyness give you any false sense of security.  They more often use the same mock behavior for both defensive and offensive encounters. When confronted, a typical mock-heroic charge consists of sniffing the air with a fixed stare straight ahead.  They will then charge to within 3 to 20 feet away from their suspect, slap one or both feet on the ground making a loud huffing noise. If that doesn’t intimidate, the bear then makes rapid snaps of its jaw and pops it lips together. 

The bear will then either repeat all the same gesture as before or more often the bear will veer off the charge and run to a safer area, or in the worse case scenario, complete his or her intent if they feel they are being physically threatened.

Always exercise caution if you come across a Black Bear in the wild, when disturbed they can be highly unpredictable.  It’s best to remember that Black Bears can run at speeds up to 30-miles an hour, climbing a tree won’t help you, bears are great climbers and water won’t help you either, black bears are good swimmers.

Black Bears rarely attack, and have a long history of not harming humans in the Blue Ridge, Smoke Mountains region, yet in 2006 two hikers on two separate occasions were fatally mauled, an unusual and unfortunate occurrence. 

The attacks were credited to too much rural development along the perimeter areas of the mountains and national forest areas near where the attacks took place.  Lost habitats have put serious pressure on some bears that are left with little patience due to shrinking food resources, most typical Black Bears find avoiding people to be a much easier solution, some bears just don’t know any better.

Mother bears will protect their cubs to their very end and should never be approached under any circumstances.  Even if you see a cub left on their own, chances are the mother could be lurking close by and will perform a mock-attack or an actual attack if she senses danger.  This defense measure of the mother bear likely derives not so much from human threat, but from the obvious history of male bears that will often kill cubs for food, mother bears must be overly protective.  Should you encounter a possible lost cub or cubs, you should contact Lisa at Appalachian Bear Rescue, she maintains a hotline for notifying the proper authorities for necessary bear cub rescue or recovery at (865) 448-0143.

Panhandling bears are technically referred to as “habitual bears” and always a problem all their own.  These Black Bears have lost most of their fear of humans; they can be very persistent beggars.  The smell of available food, whether it’s fresh or disposed garbage, can cause them to turn from beggars to demanders, a serious concern for wild life management and humans.  A “Bear Safety” feature is included in our Blue Ridge Highlander’s “Black Bears of the Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains.”

Mating, Cubs and Yearlings

Black Bears reach full maturity between 2 to 5 years of age and can live well into their 30’s under normal, natural condition.  Black Bears usually begin breeding between 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years of age.  Though male bears usually mature a few months after female, some male bears can breed as early as 1 1/2 years old.

Female Black Bears, known as “sows,” mate once every two years, males mate annually.   Breeding season begins each July followed by a gestation of 7 months, most cubs are delivered from mid January to mid February; litters consist of 1 to 3 cubs. Male bears leave the females after mating providing no assistance to the mother or cubs welfare. 

The mating ritual of Black Bears consist of male bears rubbing against trees, stripping off tree bark, biting trees or other wood surfaces in order set a scent that will attract female bears.  Female bears will rub against trees or other wood surfaces to make known their intentions for mating, staying close to their bait per-se for the arrival of male bears. During her 3 weeks of heat she is likely to breed with several male bears. A pregnant sow will gain an additional 30 to 50 % of her body weight eating as much as 4 times the normal.  Most of this weight is gained in the fall, preparing for winter hibernation or deep sleep.

Cubs from 1 to 3 per litter are born in winter dens from mid January to mid February and weigh about 8 ounces or more and are totally dependent on their mothers. The cubs are often born when the mother is half asleep, they arrive almost hairless, and they’re also toothless and blind.  They will nurse the mother who is often barely aware of their cubs feeding during their hibernation period.  The warmer southern Appalachian’s (southern Blue Ridge Smoky Mountain) regions may cause mother bears to be more alert and aware when giving birth.

After roughly 8 to 10 weeks, the cubs weigh about 5 pounds and can journey out of the den with their mother.  By this time they have full coats (usually each coat of the cubs varies in color shade,) the cubs are more physically active and very playful.

Cub training begins at this stage of growth, learning what to eat, how to climb trees and they even learn to swim. Momma bears teach her cubs how to select specific foods to eat, such as berries, nuts, wild plants and the proper way to burrow for small animals. Black Bear cubs learn what’s proper to eat, and what’s poison, by sniffing their mother’s breath to determine what they should consume.  Within the roof of the cub’s mouth is a gland called the Kilham Gland.  This gland guides the cubs to the proper things to eat and verifies they are eating the same as their mothers are. Pandas are the only bears that lack this Kilham Gland; pandas only eat bamboo limiting their need to explore other food groups. 

During this early period of cub development, the cubs wrestle, tumble, run, play tag and love to climb trees, developing their sense of coordination and building their strength.  Mother bears communicate their authority to their cubs using verbal grunts and hard cuffs of their paws.  All bears, mothers bears included, have excellent dexterity within their paws, both firm and soft.  Mothers use their paws to inform her cubs of her approval as well as disapproval. Often momma bear likes to play with her cubs in their games showing her love and affection to her offspring.

At times when the mother needs to forage for her young cubs without their interference, she’ll send her cubs up a nearby tree in a good feeding area, keeping a close eye on her cubs.  While in the trees, the cubs observe their domain, play and often take naps. 

Female bears are often very aggressive towards other female bears as well as male bears, protecting their food territory for their young.  Invaders are run off by the more aggressive mother, the less aggressive mother will usually take to a nearby tree with her cubs for safety sake in order to avoid a fight or having her cubs hurt.

Black Bear cubs weigh about 15 pounds at six months and will need to gain at least an additional 25 pounds in order to properly den with their mother for winter hibernation or deep sleep.  Over the next three years they will grow to their full adult weight, totally maturity at about 4 years old.  Cubs remain with their mothers throughout the first year, and will den with momma bear the following winter.  The following spring its time for the litter to leave momma bear and set out on their own.  If necessary she will rightfully drive her cubs away before the coming of her every other year mating season. 

At eighteen months the cubs begin their journeys, exploring their independence, establishing a future range of their own for breeding and feeding purposes.  At this stage of exodus from the mother’s den the cubs have grown into what is called a “yearling,” no longer a cub and not quite an adult yet old enough to live on their own.

It’s only natural for Black Bears to live a long healthy life in the wilderness they inhabit: yet bear-human conflicts due to food sources and encroachment have interfered with the natural design of the bears plan, creating endangerment and decline for these Southern Appalachian Bear residents. 

For more information concerning Black Bears of the Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains, continue to read our featured stories within the Highlander’s  “Black Bears of the Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains” series.

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