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.
All About Black Bears
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions:
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.
A male that weighed 880 pounds and lived in North Carolina.
They can also wake up and go outside when it’s warm, and then return. However, they do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate when denning.
Three years old.
All of them: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
- Skunk Cabbage
- Squaw Root
- Hard mast (Acorns, Other tree nuts)
- Autumn Olive
- Wild Grapes
Bottom photo: Steve Uffman
Black Bear Myths:
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.
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.
A standing bear is simply trying to see, smell, or hear better than it can when on all fours.
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.
Bears have vision similar to us, and can see in color, too. Their night vision is very sharp and they detect movement quickly.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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
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).