Most summer evenings after the heat of the day has faded, I walk Butterfly Loop. This trail encircles a portion of our 37-acre meadow we call First Field.
Often I’m treated to a stunning sunset, and always I hear and see songbirds that prefer a meadow of forbs or the edge of a wooded ridge.
Sometimes I glimpse a herd of deer before they see me and run off. Once I watched a raccoon set out for the evening along the edge of First Field, and several times I’ve encountered a porcupine grazing on the grasses.
On my July birthday last year I had made a note of the abundant ripe huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way near the Short Circuit Trail and had stood in the cool morning eating them by the handfuls.
That evening, on Butterfly Loop, I scanned the right-of-way with my binoculars. To my surprise, I spotted a large black bear doing exactly what I had done in the morning—picking and eating huckleberries.
Although bears are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat almost anything, more than 80% of their diet is vegetable matter—grasses and weeds in the spring, wild berries in the summer and nut species in the fall. They are especially fond of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries.
On my birthday evening, I was pleased to see a bear without it seeing or scenting me and to watch it for half an hour as it moved methodically from patch to patch, peacefully harvesting huckleberries by using its paws to hold the bushes while it broke off berries with its teeth.
Sometimes I could see its face and what appeared to be a single silver disk in the middle of each ear, but I was too far away to tell if they were ear tags. Finally, it disappeared into the taller brush.
We’ve been living with bears for almost four decades, but that was one of the few times I had a chance to observe a bear without it detecting me. Often I’ve turned around on trails when I’ve seen a bear in the distance before it sees me or I step into the underbrush and wait for it to pass. But if it’s too close, I have to stand my ground.
For instance, late last May, as I ambled along Laurel Ridge Trail on my morning walk, a large black sow emerged from the right side of the forest at the top of a steep incline. I expected her to cross the trail, but instead, she turned and started toward me, followed by her yearling cub.
I froze in place and considered my options. She was less than 100 feet away and moving quickly so turning around didn’t seem like a good idea. Because nearly always, talking to wild animals scares them away, first I said quietly, “You don’t want to come this way.”
The bears paused and then haltingly continued moving forward. Next I clapped my hands, a maneuver I had never tried before, and immediately the sow turned and ran into the woods on the left side of the trail.
But the cub still hesitated until I clapped my hands again. Then it ran after the sow, and I proceeded on my way, surprised to realize that after numerous peaceful encounters with bears, I didn’t even have an elevated heartbeat.
A week later on the first of June, my husband, Bruce, went for a walk in the foggy dawn and saw a bear on Laurel Ridge. During my walk, I found many fresh scratches on the Laurel Ridge power pole, reminding me of a time, many Junes ago, when I heard and then watched a boar raking a power pole with his claws and then turning and rubbing his back against it. This was another case where the bear didn’t see or scent me even though I was only 50 feet away from him.
Researchers still aren’t certain why black bears do this, but tree or, in our case, pole-marking behavior does occur more often during the June breeding season. However, Bruce once watched a bear shredding a power pole near the Short Circuit Trail in August. And the power poles atop Sapsucker Ridge have even more claw marks, administered throughout the year, than those on Laurel Ridge. Because of this, I’m more inclined to consider them message poles that inform other bears of their size and presence.
Lynn Rogers, who has been studying black bears in Minnesota for decades, found that most of his radio-collared tree-markers were male bears. Right after they marked a tree, Rogers was able to smell their scent on the tree. Since bears have a much stronger sense of smell than we do, Rogers thought that bears could smell the trees long after they had been marked. Perhaps, he theorized, such trees may warn males that other males are near so they can avoid fights.
There’s no doubt that male bears are excited during mating season. The only time I was chased by a bear was when a male apparently mistook me for a sow. I had been sitting quietly in First Field near some shrubs when I heard a bear and stood up. As I started walking around the shrubs, I realized the bear was close behind me. Again I turned around and spoke to him. He stopped short, wheeled around, and headed off to find a female of his own species.
By the time females are in estrous, they have chased off their yearlings. Two weeks after I encountered sow and cub, first Bruce saw a yearling streaking across Greenbrier Trail near its confluence with Bird Count Trail and later our son Dave saw what was probably the same yearling still running straight out, this time across Ten Springs Trail. Probably either the sow or her paramour were chasing her persistent cub away.
Female yearlings will stay in the sow’s territory, researchers have found, but male cubs have to leave the area and try to find a place that has no bears. Male territories are larger than those of females and usually include two or more females. Territory and range size vary depending on food sources.
Bears of both sexes have been known to wander off their ranges for miles in search of food, especially in autumn when the acorn and/or beechnut crops fail because they rely on the high fat content of those foods to put on weight before winter.
Last summer our berry crops were huge, especially blackberries, and we picked over 50 quarts. Our lowbush blueberry crop was poor; our huckleberry crop adequate. Later, the black cherry crop was also poor, the wild grape crop average, and the acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts scant.
We didn’t have any other bear encounters, but I did find piles of bear scat filled with berry seeds and later with corn, presumably from the valley farms. Unlike bears in wilderness areas, our bears can depend on cultivated crops if the wild ones fail. Here in Pennsylvania, there are many sources of food from farms and forests—carrion from domestic as well as wild animals and fresh insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and even new born fawns.
As the years have passed, we’ve had our behavior shaped by bear appetites. When we heard a bear overturn the garbage can with what we thought was a tight lid to cover itself with sunflower seed, we put the bird feeder cans in our basement. When we were awakened another night by a bear emptying our washed recycled cans, also in clean garbage cans, we put them in the basement.
We bring in our bird feeders every night during November, most of December, March and early April and then retire them until the following fall. And since a sow with her cubs broke through our kitchen screen door two years ago and was climbing in when we sent her off one summer night, we close all doors and windows in our kitchen in the evening, no matter how stifling the weather.
But even that sacrifice is worth it to live with bears. Here is a video of a bear family filmed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.