Meet the Black Bear

Three species of bears inhabit North America. From largest to smallest, they are the polar bear, brown bear (also known as grizzly) and black bear. Of the three, the black bear is by far the most wide-ranging. In fact, these resourceful bears inhabit forests of at least 40 of the 50 states, including all states in the Southeastern U.S.

Watching a bear can be a wonderful experience. As more people live close to their woodland homes, the chances of seeing black bears are rising. The key is to stay at a safe distance and never let bears get into birdseed, garbage or other human food that can lead them into trouble. Learn More: BearWise Basics and Bear Safety Tips.

The bear essentials: Bears must find food to eat, water to drink, safe places to sleep including winter dens, and survive fierce storms or heat. The females are kept busy raising their cubs in addition to finding food for themselves. Our job is to give bears plenty of space to live and to find their own healthy, natural foods. Their safety and ours depend on how we behave in bear country.

black bear in tree, photo by Steve Uffman
(Photo: Steve Uffman)

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Frequently Asked Questions
and
Black Bear Myths

All About Black Bears

Blond-colored black bear in Missouri

What color is a black bear?

A black bear has a long snout, rounded ears, and small eyes. In the Southeast, bears are mostly black and often have a brown snout, while in the western U.S., their fur can also be shades of red, brown or blond. Trail cam photo by Missouri Department of Conservation

bear on the road - bearwise

How fast can bears move?

Although large animals, black bears are surprisingly quick and agile. They can sprint up to 35 miles per hour and climb 100 feet up a tree within 30 seconds.

bear too close

How big are black bears?

A bear might shuffle along, nibbling plants and acting like a gentle giant, but looks can be deceiving. Black bears are strong and muscular with record weights over 800 pounds. Male black bears typically weigh between 130 and 500 pounds, while smaller females weigh 90 to 350 pounds.

Black Bear Nursing her Cubs

What bears do & where they go

Seasons of the Bear

Black bears are awake from spring through fall, and mostly asleep in winter, curled up in dens. Bears choose many different kinds of dens, including hollow trees, under fallen trees, excavated mounds, or in ‘nests’ under briar patches. In more temperate areas, male bears and females without cubs may not den at all during the winter.

Bears generally explore their habitat alone, except when gathering at places with plentiful food, like acorns in oak forests or corn in farm fields. Males and females pair up during the summer breeding season. Females raise cubs for up to a year and a half. Bears tend to be most active at dusk and dawn.

Home on the Home Range

Bears do not have territories, they have home ranges. Panthers have territories, and male panthers actively defend their area and will not let other male panthers live there. Bears have home ranges, where they share space with other bears of both sexes, just not at the same time unless it is a male and female during the breeding season.

A bear’s home range needs to be large enough to provide them with food, shelter, and mates. Males have larger home ranges (up to 300 square miles) than females (up to 50 square miles). A male’s home range typically overlaps with multiple female home ranges. Bears travel farthest when food is harder to find, especially in early spring.

A Sensational Nose

A black bear can smell the scent of a human in a footprint, ripe berries in the air, and a steak grilling a mile away. A bear can smell seven times better than a bloodhound, known for tracking lost people. Its big nose has an area inside (called the nasal mucosa) that is 100 times larger than ours. An amazing amount of olfactory information swirls in from the outside world.

When it comes to food, a bear goes into high alert, smelling particles so tiny we wouldn’t be able to see them. Bears prefer their natural foods, but some may overcome fear of humans if their explorations are rewarded with unsecured trash, high-calorie pet food, or greasy barbecue grills. Remember, bears are commonly thought to have among the very best senses of smell in the animal kingdom.
black bear nose (closeup photo)
(Photo: Pat Gaines)

Bears eat a lot

Every fall, bears are eating ravenously. To put on enough fat to last through the winter denning time, they may spend 20 hours a day eating and may put on up to 100 pounds in a few weeks. During spring and summer, bears eat around 5,000 calories a day, but in the fall, they are trying to eat up to 20,000 calories every day. In the Southeast when acorns are plentiful on trees, bears gorge on the energy-packed nuts.

A Well-Rounded Diet

Bears eat both meat and vegetables, which makes them omnivores. In spring, they tend to eat mostly plants. In summer, they feast on berries and insects, and in fall, they harvest nuts and more berries. They also eat carrion (dead animals), small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

All about bear cubs

A black bear mother may raise from one to five cubs that are born in a winter den. At birth, they weigh only ½ to ¾ pounds. Cubs depend on their mothers for about a year and half.  She feeds them, teaches them, and protects them from predators that include foxes, coyotes, bobcats, dogs, and other bears.

Young Male Bears Face Challenges

When the mother is ready to breed again, her female young tend to live near her, but her male young have to leave to find their own area to live. These young male bears can get in trouble by looking for easy food sources where people live, like garbage, pet food, or bird seed.

Family of Black Bears
(Photo: Steve Uffman)

Do bears really hibernate?

Some people believe that bears are not true hibernators. Squirrels, bats, rodents, marmots and other true hibernators enter a state close to suspended animation where body temperatures fall close to freezing and metabolisms slow almost to a halt.

A bear’s metabolism, heartbeat and respiration rate drops dramatically, but its body temperatures only drops about 12 degrees during hibernation. They don’t eat at all, nor do they go to the bathroom; bears’ dens are remarkably clean and odor-free … unlike true hibernators who wake up every few days to drink, go to the bathroom and nibble some stored food before going back to sleep.

A bear’s body is a model of recycling. While they’re hibernating, they recycle all of their waste products and actually heal any injuries they may have had when they turned in. So many scientists now call bears “Super Hibernators” because they can fall into a deep sleep for four to six months without eating or drinking, wake up in the spring and head back out into the world.

Why the Long Nap?

Bears don’t necessarily den up because it’s cold; they put themselves to sleep for the winter because food is in short supply. In far northern climates, bears might be in their dens fasting and living off their fat reserves for up to six months. In more temperate climates where natural foods are available longer, they may turn in anytime between November and mid-December, and emerge again in late March or early April.

Bears may den for much shorter periods of time and sleep less deeply if food (natural or human-provided) is available all year. In sub-tropical Florida only pregnant females den up for the short winter; other bears may turn in for just a week or two or not at all.

Life in the Den

Bears in their dens live off the fat reserves they worked so hard over the late summer and fall to acquire. Bears often change their position in the den and may even wander out into the world for brief periods and then go back to sleep. Hibernating mothers-to-be give birth in their dens, nurse their cubs and even clean up after the youngsters while they are “asleep,” something that many of you human mothers can probably relate to.

Never crawl into a bear den; bears wake up very quickly and can swiftly react to danger. And imagine how grumpy you’d be if someone interrupted your long winter’s nap.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How many black bears live in North America?

Approximately 900,000.

How long do wild black bears live?

The oldest wild black bear lived 39 years, but it is more common to find female bears living into their 20’s. Bears that eat a lot of non-natural human foods tend to die earlier.

What is the largest wild black bear on record?

A male that weighed 880 pounds and lived in North Carolina.

How old does a female black bear need to be to mate and have cubs?

Three years old.

Bears live in which southern states?

All of them: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

What kinds of food do bears in the Southeast eat by season?

In Spring:

  • Grasses/Forbes
  • Insects/Larvae
  • Skunk Cabbage
  • Squaw Root

In Summer/Fall:

  • Berries
  • Hard mast (Acorns, Other tree nuts)
  • Autumn Olive
  • Dogwood
  • Wild Grapes
  • Serviceberry
  • Mountain-ash
  • Hawthorn
  • Chokecherry
  • Pokeberry
  • Sassafras

Bottom photo: Steve Uffman 

Black Bear Myths:

Myth: Black bears that wander into campsites, towns or cottage communities are dangerous.

Many people in the Southeastern U.S. live in or near black bear habitat. Bears often walk through neighborhoods in their search for food; this is natural bear behavior. If people have stored their food and garbage properly, a bear will likely keep on going. However, bears that get unnatural food in neighborhoods may eventually lose their fear of people, which can be a risk to public safety.

Myth: A mother black bear with cubs is always dangerous

It’s rare for mother black bears to attack a person in defense of cubs, because her cubs can climb trees when they feel threatened. When they are up in a tree she knows they are safe.

Your best action is to be calm and give her plenty of room, even if it means you have to change your planned hike or other activity. Never keep approaching her, even if the cubs are in a tree.

Myth: A black bear standing on its hind legs is about to charge.

A standing bear is simply trying to see, smell, or hear better than it can when on all fours.

Myth: Relocating or even killing a “nuisance” black bear will solve the problem.

Removal of a bear may provide temporary relief of a problem, or may even be required to protect public safety. However,  removal is not a long-term solution. There will be other bears drawn to the attractants that lured the “nuisance” bear in.

Bears that hang around neighborhoods or businesses are symptoms of a larger problem. Their continued presence means that they are likely finding and eating unsecured garbage, birdseed from feeders, pet foods, or other non-natural, human-provided foods.

If you eliminate the food source, you can eliminate the problem.

Myth: Black bears have poor eyesight.

Bears have vision similar to us, and can see in color, too. Their night vision is very sharp and they detect movement quickly.

Myth: Black bear attacks are common.

Black bear attacks are extremely rare. Most bears will retreat before you are even aware of their presence. That said, always stay alert in bear country and know the best ways to avoid problem encounters.

Myth: If a black bear charges you, climb a tree.

Black bears are excellent tree climbers, far better than you. If a black bear charges, stand your ground. The bear will likely break its charge and run away, or climb a tree to be safe from you. Keep standing your ground until a bear leaves, and then calmly walk away.

Myth: Play dead during a black bear attack.

Playing dead is ALWAYS the wrong action if a black bear attacks you.  Instead, fight for your life. Kick, punch, hit the bear with rocks or sticks or any improvised weapon you can find.  A bear that attacks may be an extremely rare predatory bear that stalks prey or attacks from behind. The bear may not even display defensive behavior like huffing or slapping the ground with a paw. Instead, its’ ears and head may be held low and its’ eyes focused directly on you. NEVER RUN. This might encourage a bear’s predatory instinct. (Note, if you visit grizzly bear country, playing dead could work in certain instances. Find out more about grizzly encounters here).

Myth: It is dangerous to go into black bear country when menstruating.

Menstruation does not increase the likelihood of an attack by a bear. Be sure to treat used sanitary products as you would food and garbage when hiking or camping. Wrap waste in plastic and store in your daypack (when hiking), or in a bear-resistant container (when camping).

Myth: Black bears are unpredictable.

Like people, bears can show their intentions through body language and the sounds they make. The more you learn about bear behavior, the better choices you will make in their presence

Myth: Grizzly bears are brown and black bears are black.

While black is the most common color of black bears in the Southeastern U.S., black bear coats in other areas can be cinnamon, blond, gray, or even white. The only species of bear that lives in the Southeastern U.S. is the black bear (Ursus americanus).