Early last week, a neighbor complained to me that a bear had carried her garbage from the trashcan to the edge of her yard. Not having seen or heard the animal responsible for the garbage theft, I thought that it could have been a raccoon, as it was a single bag, which wasn’t too heavy. However, I spoke with my friend the next day, and he told me that a bear had stolen his bird feeder which he thought was safe to put up in December.
During the fall, bears are feeding as much as they can, to store fat that will sustain them through the winter. As long as the weather is relatively mild and there is plentiful food, they will continue to forage. Food may include leftover berries or seeds, grubs or other insects under rocks or in logs, or even popcorn or berries that may be present on discarded Christmas decorations. Of course, bird seed attracts them as well as food scraps in the garbage we throw out.
Male bears will find a den when the weather really turns cold, but they still may come out occasionally for a walk in an attempt to forage. The female bears have already gone back to their dens, where they will give birth to anywhere between one to five cubs in the next few weeks. The cubs will nurse, gaining weight, until they all emerge from the den in April. The mother bear is in a torpor, in which her heart rate and respiration slows and her body temperature cools slightly. The stored fat of their summer and fall foraging sustains them until their spring emergence. A den could be a cave as many people associate with bears, but many more are under root balls from downed trees, hollow logs, or even piles of brush piled up in land clearing operations.
Many people put out their bird feeders around this time, but if you get a report of a bear in the area, remove feeders, as well as any other food sources that will attract bear. Garbage is a big bear attractant, so put your cans out on the day of collection and consider bear-proof cans and dumpsters. Don’t leave shed or garage doors open and unattended if you store bird seed or other food items inside. Bears normally fear us, but not if we give them an open invite with no humans around. If you have a bear problem and want to feed the birds, consider taking your feeders in at night, when less human activity encourages bears to forage near houses.
This recording of a mother bear nursing her cubs. "Sounds like a mechanical vacuum pump!" said The River Reporter River Talk columnist Scott Rando. Rando climbed into the den with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to document bear den visits. Please don't disturb the bears on your own.