This medium-sized bear is usually black with a brown muzzle and may have a white patch on the chest. Although black is the prominent color, chocolate and cinnamon-brown color phases occur, especially in western states, which often result in people confusing them with brown bears.
Black bears are at the top of the food chain. However, young cubs can be preyed upon by coyotes, wolves, cougars, and brown bears. Black bears are excellent tree climbers and cubs will quickly climb a tree to avoid danger. Adults can also outrun most danger at 25-30 miles per hour. They can live up to 25 years in the wild.
Black bears are normally found only in forested areas, but within such habitat they are highly adaptable. They live in both dry and moist forests, from sea level to over 6,560 feet (2,000 meters).
Black bears feed on a wide range of food, depending on what is available. Insects (particularly ants), nuts, berries, acorns, grasses, roots, and other vegetation form the bulk of the diet in most areas. Black bears can also be efficient predators of deer fawns and moose calves. In some areas of coastal British Columbia and Alaska they also feed on spawning salmon.
Females reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years of age and males reach sexual maturity at about 4 to 5 years of age. Mating takes place in June, July and August, and pairs may remain together for a few hours or several days. Pregnancy lasts about 220 days, and cubs are born in a den in January and February. Litter sizes range from one to five, with two being the average. Cubs are weaned at six to eight months, but they remain with their mother for a year and a half. Consequently, the most often that female black bears can mate is every two years.
Black Bears Through The Seasons
Black bears do not hibernate; rather they go into a winter torpor (sleep). A bear’s body temperature and resting heart rate do not drop as significantly as a true hibernator, such as a groundhog. Bears can and do wake up throughout the winter. Geographic location determines how long their winter sleep will last. In southern, warmer climates, bears do not sleep as long as those in northern, colder climates.
Once bears wake from their winter sleep, they search for plants to eat. As early summer arrives, black bears may take advantage of the abundance of deer fawns.
Bears mate in June, July and August. Bears are feeding on plants, berries, insects, honey, fawns, and trash.
To prepare for their winter sleep, bears need to store a lot of fat to survive the winter. Bears can gain up to 30 pounds in one week. In late summer and early fall they search for the most available and highest quality food sources. These may include acorns, crops, insects, berries, fish, and trash.
Tracks: Front and hind feet have 5 toes with claws showing. The front foot is rounded, measuring 5 inches to 6¼ inches long by 3¾ inches to 5½ inches wide. The back foot is longer, measuring 6 inches to 7¾ inches long by 3½ inches to 5½ inches wide.
Scat: Because black bears are omnivores, their scat can change. What they eat determines what their scat looks like. For example, if a bear eats blackberries, its scat will resemble blackberries in color and odor, and the seeds will be visible within the scat. Scat of an adult black bear may range from 1¼ inches to 2¾ inches in diameter, and a cub’s scat may be as small as ¾ inches in diameter.
Dens: Black bears use hollow logs, brush piles, rock crevices, and areas beneath uprooted trees for winter den sites. In summer they may also bed in shallow depressions in leaf litter or in trees.
Downed logs: While looking for ants, black bears will tear apart dead logs with their claws.
Damage to trees: Black bears are great climbers. They leave behind claw marks as they go up a tree looking for food or a safe place to hide. Look up into the tree to determine if they fed on the leaves and fruits. Bears often break many branches in the process of feeding.
Calls to Use When Hunting
Predator Call: Dominated by their appetites in the fall, black bears respond well to predator calls– the sound of a distressed animal. Bears will investigate in hopes of an easy meal.
- Knowing the bear’s food source will increase the likelihood of an encounter.
- Pre-season scouting will help determine food sources and common travel routes.
- Hide your scent. Make sure to use cover scent when scouting and hunting – bears have a great sense of smell and will pick-up your trail quickly.
The lungs of a bear extend farther back so aim a little further back than you would on a deer. If you aim too far forward the arrow can deflect off the rib cage and exit the front of the chest – a non-lethal shot.
Field Dressing & Meat Care
Black bear meat, like pork, can carry the parasite Trichinella spiralis. The parasite causes the disease trichinosis, a type of roundworm. In humans, trichinosis is usually characterized by two stages; first there is abdominal discomfort, diarrhea and nausea, and begins one to two days after eating and followed by muscle aches, itching, fever, chills, and joint pain that begins about two to eight weeks after eating. Take precautions to kill the parasite before eating the meat. The meat is safe if you follow these guidelines. Cook fresh bear meat and pork at 375o F for 20 to 25 minutes per pound. For cuts of meat larger than three pounds, double the cooking time. Cook until the internal meat temperature is 170o F. A good rule of thumb is to cook until there is no trace of pink meat or fluid. Be especially careful to look in the joints and near the bone. Freezing does not kill the parasite or render undercooked meat safe for eating. Cooking in a microwave oven does not kill the parasite, and is not recommended.
- Cooney, Judd. The Bowhunter’s Field Manual. New York: Woods N’ Water, 2006.
- Halfpenny, James. A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. Colorado: Johnson Printing Company, 1986.
- Murie, Olaus. Peterson Field Guides: Animal Tracks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
- Rezendes, Paul. Tracking and the Art of Seeing. Second Edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.