Previously, I had discussed a couple of important issues that should be kept in mind and acted upon during each and every visit to an area where black bears might carry out their activities; particularly in wilderness and semi-wilderness regions. In Ontario they are more concentrated in Central Ontario and north country, but also around agricultural areas of Southern Ontario where crops such as oats and corn are grown. (You may left click on any photo for a larger picture.)
The issues previously discussed were:
1) The ELEMENT OF SURPRISE, and
2) Being At RISK
We’ll now consider three more matters for our attention:
3) Pertinent lessons related to the social behaviour of bears
4) Other lessons on the dynamics of their emotional reactions
5) The individual personalities of bears
Finally, for P4, it will be:
6) Understanding their comfort zones, and when it might be intruded upon, consciously or unconsciously.
7) Their knowledge and understanding of their own situations, and how they might interpret that.
3 >The social behaviour of bears, and what we should learn from that:
It’s quite obvious to those who observe bears — including the blacks — that they have a social structure and behave in certain predictable ways toward each other.
They are not herd animals that travel together in groups looking for grass, or other vegetation, or a source of water to drink. Nor are they pack animals that live in tight family groups such as wolves and lions. And they don’t share living quarters and food as do hyenas and African wild dogs. The sole exception would be a mother bear caring for her cub(s) for about one year.
Bears are loners, both male and female, except for a relatively brief mating period. And both are promiscuous during that time. They have no sense of family relations. A male impregnates a sow and she may have sexual relations with other males as he will with other females if available. She (like some promiscuous humans) may not know for certain who fathered her cub(s) and doesn’t really care as long as her “motherly” instincts are fulfilled. She may actually come to fear a male, after exit from the den with her cub(s), that he might kill and eat her offspring!
Bears are not sentimental in relationships. When they travel or move about, foremost in their thinking is food and drink. Then mating, and lastly their comfort and safety. Much like humans in those matters. But there’s probably not much thought, and certainly little, if any, planning that goes into such matters — it’s more like natural instinct. That’s a distinction from the nature of humans, who tend to give some rational thought and planning to activities (at least some of us do). Bears act on the impulse of the moment that is generated by their hormones and genes… Come to think of it, too many humans seem to behave like the animal kingdom in that regard, though they claim to know better. For bears, and others of the wild kingdom, we make excuses for what comes naturally to them. And some humans make excuses for themselves too, even though they should know better! “Ignorance of the law is no excuse”, nor is ignorance in being just plain stupid! We’re not bears or sheep — but come to think of that as well, you can leave out the “sheep” part, as Jesus wisely called us “sheep”, and sheep are nice but dumb!
I put their comfort and safety together, and last but not least. At times it might be their primary concern, such as in denning or escaping from perceived harm. We need to keep in mind, however, that bears are at the top of the food chain in North America. They may not be aware of it, but we should be.
While bears are essentially loners, several may congregate at a food source for their own reasons, but will do so competitively. They will keep their distance from each other, and observe certain “ground rules” if possible. If not, then feuds and some private battles may ensue. Yet, often there is a “pecking order”. Dominant males (in particular) will command their own space.
In observing bears at baits, or on camera, young bears come in first, sometimes, but not every time, or sows with cubs. Bears have to work that out among themselves. My observation from many years and seasons is that if a dominant bear discovers a bait setup, he will guard it as his own by sleeping nearby. Other bears get to know this, and depending on how he “feels” about matters, they may not dare approach the site without his “permission”. But, if he wanders away (for his own reasons) for a few days, “they” may sneak in for a morsel or two. When he returns, however, you’ll not see them again at the bait until he has fully satiated his hunger. Since no two situations are identical, a lot goes on behind the scenes that we know little to nothing about. It may be the mating season that will keep a male around if females (or a single one) are in the area and attending a bait setup. Still, other food sources such as corn, oats, nuts or berries may draw them away.
It has been said: If you know what a bear is going to do next, then you know more than the bear does! That has some appearance of truth, but the fact is that any bear, no matter his/her activities, has a purpose in it, though it might very well be brief.
What do I mean? Bears, at least black bears, are easily distracted (from appearances, somewhat like humans). Because searching for food, especially in late summer/early fall, is their most dominant activity, we must assume they are searching out sources: berries, nuts from trees, corn, etc. Also the smell of something dead or rotting, or sources of sweet things — some of which can be provided in a bait setup — can become an overwhelming temptation. But, if natural crops, or those planted by humans, are abundant, they may ignore baits if close to farms or human habitation. So bears may leave one area and head for another if there are several competing sources within a 25 sq-mile area. They can pick up the scent of “food” from 10 miles away(16 kms) if weather conditions are favorable.
4 > The dynamics of their emotional reactions: Are bears ever happy? Bears communicate their emotions by body language. When very young, they like play activities as in wrestling and simulated fighting with siblings (if any), or with the mother bear if other youngsters aren’t available. They will romp, and play with an object or chew on it. They seem content if the mother is around to snuggle them, provide food and a secure ambience. But momma bear will drive them away the second year, and she may do it with some forceful wacks and bites! Then the youngster is on his/her own, making them quite vulnerable for a year or so until they learn to fend for themselves.
(Here is a youngster out on his own hoping for something from an empty barrel, or maybe momma bear will show up!)
Do bears ever get angry? Yes, of course! Bears get angry with other bears, especially a male with another male who may be competing for a particular female during mating season, or for territorial rights. A dominant male will let other bears — regardless of sex, age or maturity, know his dominance by being aggressive, fighting or showing any other forms of control such as guarding a food stash. It’s in his particular temperament to have control and express fearlessness (Just like some humans!). Size and full maturity may be an important factor, but far from the only one. A male of 350 lbs may control an area where a 500 lb male is also in habitation. The reason? The dominant 350 lb bear is aggressive and confident while the 500 lb male may be more content and passive. He won’t be “pushed around”, mind you, by the smaller bear but is not particularly interested in pushing others around. And that brings us to a consideration of:
Are they sometimes afraid? Some bears will run from the intrusion of a human, or humans, into “their space”, which may give a false impression that they all fear humans by natural instinct. I once read somewhere that “a deer may leave the country when spooked, but a black bear may return and eat your lunch!” So true! A bear may fear a larger more dominant bear, but any bear is a member of the species that is at the top of the food chain in North America! Let us not forget that!
Mature bears have been known to walk into work shops and garages where a man was at work! Or, climb into an apple tree on the front lawn of a home with residents inside! I once saw a yearling bear (kicked out by its mother) come to within 2 – feet of my young partner who fell asleep behind an 18-inch diameter tree! I had to toss small sticks at my partner, finally connecting with his head, to alert him to the presence of a 90 lb black bear on the other side of the tree!
A bear is only “fearful” of being killed — as if they understood what that would mean. And even then they may come perilously close before they get the message!
Bears can be cautious, and very smart in keeping out of trouble. They can live and prosper, like a coyote, on the fringes of human occupation, or, on the other hand in the most wild of wildernesses. They are very smart and adaptable, much different than the grizzly in that regard. Grizzlies have moved away from humans and their occupations, to live in remote uninhabitable (for most humans) regions of unspoiled wildernesses.
And that brings us to consider:
5> The individual personalities of black bears: Some of that has already been portrayed in various comments and examples. Yet there remains a need for a sharper focus.
Bears are very individualistic. Each bear has its own personality, though it may fall within a certain spectrum.
A young bear, out on its own, appeared at the front of a garage sniffing a gas can as the owner (Roger) came out the door of his home to start up some heavy machinery he would be using during his work day. The distance from the door of his house to the gas can was about 15 yards. But the interesting thing was that the young bear wasn’t spooked, nor did it run off! It seemed fascinated by the smell of gasoline, which, no doubt, was his first exposure to it. While there were many bears in Roger’s area, that was a FIRST!
I knew him well as I had bear hunted on his property (with permission) for seven seasons. It bordered a Provincial Wildlife Park.
As stated, black bears are individualistic, curious, somewhat fearless, and smart — though at times (from a human perspective) they appear dumb! But it’s more like their curiosity and naiveté that gets them into trouble! But they are fast learners! They have a fantastic memory that serves them well when it comes to not only survival, but prosperity in a bear sense.
Of course, they (like humans) are omnivores, and they clearly remember food sources, what they like and don’t, if there’s plenty. And, their preferences differ, like humans, if there’s an abundance.
This account came from first hand: A friend and former partner in bear hunts was in years past employed by the Ontario MNR for seeding a northern lake with young lake trout. At the end of a long day, they would pull their small boat and motor on shore, leaving everything as it was, go into their small cabin, have a snack and fall into a deep sleep for the night until daybreak when their activities commenced all over again.
One morning, at daybreak, they walked out the door of their cabin toward the boat which had a fair-sized hole in the bow! And, on the inside they found clear evidence of a bear’s activity! Sharp claws had dug their way through the wooden hull at the bow looking for fish since the fish smell was still prominent in the bow area from the previous day’s seeding process! If there was the smell of fish, the bear reckoned there had to BE fish somewhere under that wood!
I’ve witnessed the same sort of thing at multiple bear baits! Since a bear counts upon the smell of “food”, even from miles away, to find food, there’s got to BE food at the source of the scent! At one site a large mature bear bit into a now-empty, large soup can that I’d put bacon fat into. Another chewed an empty five gallon plastic container that was used for baiting. Another dug under the bait barrel looking for additional “food” though it was empty at the time!
A bear may burn more energy than he/she gains in turning over large boulders in finding a few ants or grubs under it (Again, like some human activities!).
In hopes that you may have gained some further insights about black bears….
Til the next on: 6) Understanding their comfort zones, and 7) Their knowledge and understanding of their own situations, and how they might interpret that.
“The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God'” – The Bible