Scientific name - Euarctos americanus
Black bears vary in weight with adult males ranging from 200 pounds to over 400 pounds. Exceptional specimens can weigh 500 to 600 pounds and more. Females are generally lighter on average by about 20 percent. An average adult stands just under 3 feet at the shoulders and is approximately 2 1/2 times as long as it is high.
As its name implies, this bears fur is generally black, although various color phases do occur in different geographical areas. In its eastern range of Canada and the United States the bear's coat is glossy black, with or without a white area of varying sizes on the chest. The muzzle and part of the eye area are a paler brown.
Again, in the Western United States, Canada and the state of Alaska the basic color is black, but occasionally a brown-colored cub may appear along with its black litter mates. When first discovered, the brown and tan bears were thought to be an entirely different species entirely. Eventually though, it was discovered the cinnamon to brown to tan to occasional blond color phases commonly found are simply color phases of the same bear. An interesting fact is that very few tan or brown colored bears have ever turned up in the eastern half of the continent.
It should be noted there are two rare black bear subspecies that are not black. The blue or glacier bear is found among numerous glaciers, in rugged mountains, along an area of coastal Alaska. Elusive and retiring, its color runs from smoky bluish-gray to dark iron-gray with a brownish muzzle. Kermode's bear lives in a very restricted range on a few islands off west-central British Columbia. Not an albino, it has a white coat, grayish-beige muzzle, claws that are often white, reddish-brown foot pads and brown eyes. Both subspecies apparently breed true.
The vast range to which the animals have adapted over thousands of years takes in almost every possible mixture of terrain and climate. Climate is apparently no barrier, and nor for the most part is altitude. Blacks are common in many places in the Southeast in near-sea-level swamps, and also at 6000 and 7000 feet in mountainous terrain. They have even been seen much higher, to 9000 feet and higher, well up toward timberline.
The black bear is the most common and widespread of North America's 4 species of bears. Its range includes all wooded portions of Canada and Alaska, as well as large areas in the continental United States. They occur in a large area coincident with the Rocky Mountains, reaching southward into central Mexico. The Pacific Slope from the middle of California northward to Canada, large areas of the Northeastern States, around the Great Lakes, and an extended region of country along the Appalachians is home to this wide-ranging animal. Spot areas in the Florida Everglades, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, the Carolinas, Virginia and New York hold populations of blacks as well. Of the states, Alaska has the most black bears with an estimated population of 80,000. The states of California, Maine and Washington all have black bear populations in excess of 20,000. Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Wyoming all have considerable numbers. In Canada, substantial populations are found in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. British Columbia, portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia hold good numbers. Newfoundland and Labrador have some animals.
The proximity of large carnivores and the well-being of people are seldom in harmony. Consequently the black bear has suffered population and range reductions, especially in the southern regions. It has been eliminated from much of the midwestern and eastern states. The most important influence on populations was the clearing of forests, which drove the black bear from a tremendous amount of its original range. In need of roaming and foraging room, the black bear must have fairly large blocks of unbroken forest or wilderness in order to survive.
In general terms the black bear inhabits forests, swamps and shrub thickets, but occasionally wanders onto the tundra and mountain meadows, particularly if grizzlies no longer occur in the area. Except in parks, where it becomes accustomed to people, the black bear is shy and seeks out inaccessible country. It is able to sustain itself in a remarkable variety of plant communities; for example, beech, maple, spruce, fir, black spruce, jack pine, redwood, sitka spruce, western hemlock, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, oak, hickory, chaparral, pinyon, juniper and cypress forests are all home to this remarkable big game animal.
Home ranges of males vary from 2 square miles to 20 square miles, while those of females are much smaller at one to 2 square miles. The ranges of males seldom overlap, while females may overlap both males' and other females' ranges. Most movements of the black bear are directly related to its daily search for food; if there is an abundance, a bear may stay within as little as a square mile of range, but only as long as times of plenty last. Much of the time its wanderings will encompass at least 5 or 6 square miles -- in times of scarcity at least double that or more may be necessary.
Even though black bears apparently like to travel and wander, there is no migration as such. They have no definite winter and summer forage preferences. Seasonal movement over any appreciable distance is not common.
This is a forest or woodland creature. Unlike the plains' grizzly that followed the buffalo, the black bear has never been able to adapt to completely open country. Unless there are expansive stream bottoms thick with timber and brush for it to follow, the black bear is totally out of its element.
Although the black bear is classed as a carnivore, survival could not have been so successful if they had not adapted to a broad menu. A forage animal, they'll eat meat whenever they can get it and just about anything else as well. An opportunistic eater, they're not finicky.
They have developed a metabolism that can be fueled by just about any forage available. Though the black bear prefers animal food such as carrion, ants, grubs, frogs, fish and anything else it can grab, the majority of its diet is vegetation. The teeth are so designed that the large canines for seizing and tearing are complimented by flat-topped molars that serve as vegetation grinders. True predators geared to a meat diet only are extremely susceptible to decline, due to their inability to expand their range to places where its prey is meager. The black bear is a study in species survival.
Blacks leave the den in early spring. They live on a diet of clover, grass shoots and similar vegetation until their alimentary canals are again enlarged and conditioned for meat. During the summer months, black bears move widely in search of food. Seldom does a black bear go hunting for a specific kind of meal. It shuffles along, nosing here, nosing there, digging, clawing, ripping, overturning, sniffing, eating all it finds.
During the spawn, black bears go after fish with a purpose. While by no means as expert fishermen as grizzlies, they are on occasion able to grab quantities near stream obstacles or where a smaller stream is brimming with them. For the most part, black bears take spawned-out salmon, dead or dying, and others trapped in shallows, where they are easier to catch.
They love sweets. Black bears raid bee trees in the wild and destroy apiaries. Fruit and berries in season are eaten with relish. Orchards are a prime target. Vegetable gardens and certain crop fields are also on a bears favored list. Grasses of endless variety, clover, sapwood, buds, sweet corn, melons, tomatoes, pumpkins and fields of barley or green wheat are sought. Wild nuts such as acorns, beech nuts and others are rich in fat and oil. Nuts help bears put on layers of fat before denning.
The black bear has been able to adapt well to man's presence. As animal traits go, this bear likely has more intelligence and cunning than its larger relatives, but is clearly a shy creature, with an uncanny capacity to retain its privacy. Its ability to survive on the very edges of man's communities is in many ways like the whitetail deer. Today black bears live short distances of very large cities, where habitat is suitable and food available.
The most highly developed sense of the black bear is smell. It is important a bear pick up scents at long distance due to the cover it favors. This keen sense of smell is also important in locating a diversity of food. Hearing is also very good. Among bears, the black has the largest ears and extremely sharp hearing. Again, this sense was probably developed to a high level because the animal lives and hides in heavy cover. The black's eyesight is poor. While it sees movement readily, it cannot quickly identify motionless objects unless it can smell them. With its daily foraging, extra-sharp eyesight is not any great advantage, as in cover it cannot see far anyway.
Ordinarily a quiet animal, blacks utter vocal sounds when irritated, breeding or communicating with their young. Large bears may bawl or roar, snuffle or make grunting sounds. When suspicious, a black will rear up on its hind legs and grunt. When a black begins to cough, growl and snap its teeth together, prepare to back off. The bear is going to come at you -- with purpose. A wounded black on occasion utters a hair-raising moan. Cubs may let out little bawls when scared, and whimper and whine to their mother. Black bears do not constantly make vocal sounds -- you can travel through bear country for many years and never hear a snort.
The black bear is a solitary creature except when breeding,
rearing young, or when attracted to an abundant source of food.
Big boars are inclined to stay in the thickest, most remote cover,
except for the occasional foray. Blacks are intelligent and show
great interest in exploring and examining new objects, especially
if they smell edible. Unpredictable, black bears also display
a great capacity for destruction. They appear to take great pleasure
in wrecking anything that may contain food. They'll root through
garbage, rip tents, smash coolers, bite cans and break into remote
Black bears are strong swimmers as well as excellent climbers. They have short, closely curved claws that cling to bark expertly. An adult black, when pressed, can shinny up a tree at almost running speed. Coming down a tree, the bear has to move rear end first, sliding and grabbing with its claws. It is not uncommon for a descending black to let go a few feet above the ground and plop down.
The black bear has several different gaits. It rambles along flatfooted in a rolling, almost aimless manner. It also walks swiftly, head swinging, or at times breaks into a swift gallop. Going all-out for short bursts, a running bear may reach 25 or 30 miles per hour. Its slower gallop covers much ground and can be maintained for great distances.
Foraging increases during late summer and autumn, when the animal may put on 2 pounds or more of fat per day in preparation for winter denning -- an extra 100 pounds is common, and twice that in northern areas is not particularly rare. Individuals have been known to travel 100 miles to reach a new source of food. When temperatures approach freezing, the bear becomes less active. As a prelude to hibernation, it feels too dull and drowsy to eat for a few days. During that short fasting period the entire digestive system is mostly emptied to accommodate winter inactivity.
The black bear seeks out a den in late fall, usually around November. This depends upon altitude and weather severity. Black's in southern climes, undoubtedly with instincts dating back to the early evolution of the species, may go into a den for only a week or so, or intermittently, during winter. This season is a time of scarce forage.
Adults enter hibernation first, as early as mid-October in the north and as late as January in the southern United States. Dens may be a cave, burrow, thicket, blowdown, tree cavity, under a fallen log, hay stack, or simply a hollow in the snow. The animals don't eat, drink, urinate or evacuate their bowels during the winter. The intestine is blocked by a plug of digested food until spring.
In the North, black bear's show no regular arousal periods; however, in southern regions' individuals sometimes become active for short periods on warm winter days. The body temperature drops slightly and its breathing rate is slightly slowed. Strangely enough, the old callused layer of skin on the foot pads is shed while the bear sleeps through the winter. Hibernating blacks are not impossible to arouse. Jarring or pounding around the den will cause them to move. The animal emerges from mid-March in the south to early May in the north. Up to a quarter of a black's weight will be lost through fat utilization. As food is relatively scarce at this time of the year, the bear tends to roam widely. Two to four weeks after emerging from hibernation the black bear's fur is rubbed and shaggy-looking. From then until late fall, before the animal has again fattened up for hibernation, its coat is no good for a trophy. Early spring and late fall are the best times to hunt black bears for trophies.
Female bears come into heat every second year in June or July, occasionally late May or mid-August. During that period, a male may stay with the same female for several weeks. Unlike other times of the year, mating bears become quite affectionate. Embryos cease developing at an early stage, to resume again in late November or early December when the female is denned up cozy and warm.
Usually 2 cubs (one to 5) are born in late January to early February, while the female is still inactive. This allows the female and her young to wait out the winter and the coming of spring forage. Twins are common and triplets not uncommon. The gestation period is 7 to 9 months, but most growth occurs in the last 6 to 8 weeks prior to birth.
The young are extremely small -- only 8 inches long and 6 to 8 oz in weight and largely undeveloped at birth. Most unusual is the placing of a mothers' teats. Two are located between her hind legs and four more are on her chest. This probably is to facilitate the tiny cub's ability to find milk, as they are born to a less than alert mother. The black coat appears in several weeks but the eyes do not open until 6 weeks of age. The family emerges from the den from late March to early May. Early in their lives, cubs become agile tree climbers -- scurrying up the nearest tree at the first hint of danger. A boar bear that happens by has no compunction about killing a cub, but woe to the one that tries it. The mother flies into a violent rage and will fight instantly.
The cubs need their mother's milk until mid-summer and are self-sufficient by autumn; however, most remain with the mother until the following spring or summer when the mother comes into heat and adult males appear on the scene. Full size is reached at 4 years of age. Sexual maturity of females may occur from 2 to 5 years, but usually within 3 years. Lack of food crops such as berries and acorns can delay sexual maturity or results in a smaller litter size or even postponement of breeding. Males begin to mate at an age of 5 years, but only live for an average of 3 to 5 years, females for 5 to 8 years. Few will reach 10 years, and the maximum life span is 26 years in captivity.
There is a question as to whether black bears move mainly by day or by night. It has been shown all bears move whenever they please. Blacks are active at midday, midnight or dawn. Although the last hour of daylight is invariably the best hour of hunting, bears are also found scrounging around on a slope during late morning if they feel like it. This species is most active for several hours just after dark and before dawn, but it is not unusual for a black to be out hunting in the day or throughout the night.
After its belly is full, the black bear makes a bed and will doze for several hours. The bed may be in a thicket of brush, under blowdowns or just anywhere that is comfortable and secluded. While they range in the same general area, blacks do not habitually use the same bed more than once.