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 can be found in nearly all 50 states.

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
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, tall 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 brown, cinnamon or blond. READ MORE

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.

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.

Read about hyperphagia…

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.  Read more about bear cubs

What to do if you find cubs

Bears are great moms. It’s very unlikely the cubs have been abandoned. In fact, there’s an excellent chance mom is nearby, waiting anxiously for you to disappear. The longer you stay, the longer she will be separated from her cubs.

  • Don’t pick up cubs; even little bears have super sharp claws.
  • Don’t touch them or leave them food.
  • Please don’t turn them into real orphans by removing them from their home.

Typically, mom will return to gather up her family when no people or pets are around, usually after dark. As the cubs get older and more mobile, mother bears often leave their cubs to go forage for food (the kids are always hungry) as much as two miles away.

If you believe the cub is truly orphaned, do not touch it. Instead, snap a quick photo, note the location and immediately leave the area. Contact your state wildlife agency for further guidance.

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)
black bear scratching her back on a birch tree (copyright Ken Canning)
Black bear scratching her back on a Birch tree (Ken Canning)

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.

Read more about hibernating bears…

Frequently Asked Questions:

What color is a black bear?
Blond-colored black bear in Missouri

Photo by Missouri Department of Conservation

A. Black
B. Brown
C. Cinnamon
D. Blonde
E. Blue-Grey
F. White
G. All of the above

If you picked G, congratulations, you’re pretty smart. Black bear is a species, Ursus americanus, not a color. Black bears come in more colors than any other North American mammal.

In the eastern third of North America, the majority of black bears are a deep black color, and about a quarter of them sport a white chest blaze. The further west you go, the more likely it is you could see brown, cinnamon, tan or blonde black bears. And in British Columbia you might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of the rare Kermode bear, a subspecies of black bear with all-white fur. Researchers tracking black bears have even documented cases of bears changing colors during the year. And it’s not uncommon for a mother bear to give birth to cubs of several different colors.

No one knows for sure why black bears come in so many different colors, but scientists suggest that the colors allow bears to adapt to their habitat; bears in densely wooded areas that are dark and shady are often darker colored than bears in open, sun-drenched landscapes where lighter-colored fur helps them blend in better.

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.

Does deer repellent work on bears?

The short answer is NO. There is no scientific evidence that any product or formulation that can be sprayed on plants or scattered on the ground repels bears. Research shows that many products meant to keep deer, rabbits and other critters out of your gardens have strong odors that can actually attract bears.

Most manufactured products meant to deter critters as well as most home-brews contain ingredients like rotten eggs and other scents that smell absolutely enticing to a bear.

The best way to prevent conflicts with bears is to avoid attracting them to your home and property in the first place. Follow the BearWise Basics and learn what attracts bears and how to secure all attractants. If you have a hobby farm or orchard, chickens, beehives or small livestock, electric fencing is your most reliable method of deterring bears.

What about bear spray?

Bear spray is a powerful deterrent, but it’s not a repellent. Bear spray has been widely shown to be the best and safest way to deter an aggressive bear. Bear spray’s potent formula leaves an oily residue behind. A motion-activated camera that documented a field study in Great Smoky Mountains National Park showed several bears, deer, squirrels, wild turkeys and a coyote sniffing at bear spray residue.

Never spray bear spray on your veggie gardens, trash cans, coolers, campers, packs, tents, clothing or belongings. Carry bear spray when you’re out in bear country and learn how to use it.

Don’t wait until there’s a bear in your yard. Brush up on your BearWise Basics today.

Natural Bear Food: What is hard and soft mast?

Bur oak acorns (photo: Alan Olander)

Hard mast includes nuts and seeds such as acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts and pecans. Soft mast includes berries and fruits such as crabapples, blueberries, and serviceberries, as well as orchard fruits such as apples, peaches and other stone fruits, grapes and corn and other vegetables. Both types of mast are important year-round food sources for wildlife, but hard mast is often considered more critical, especially as a winter food source, because it’s a much denser source of calories.

Sometimes early freezes, fires, floods or other weather events damage mast crops. When areas experience widespread mast shortages or failures, bears must search even harder for other food sources. If your area has been hit by a food failure or natural disaster, it’s tempting to “help” the bears by putting out food for them. But it’s important to remember that over the years wildlife has learned to live with and adapt to fires, floods and food shortages and that feeding wildlife is never a good idea.

Are bears attracted to koi ponds?

Bears are attracted to water, especially in the summer. Swimming pools, hot tubs and artificial ponds all make good places for a bear to cool off. Once a bear is relaxing in your koi pond, it may help itself to a fish dinner, but it’s more likely that the bear’s claws may damage the pond liner as it climbs in and out. The biggest predators of domestic koi are actually great blue herons and kingfishers, followed by domestic cats, raccoons, opossums, fox, muskrats, beavers and snapping turtles.

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 killing a black bear will solve a conflict.

Relocating an individual bear may temporarily solve a human-bear conflict. Public safety may occasionally require that an individual bear be killed. However, neither of these options are permanent, effective, long-term solutions. Relocated bears often try to return home where they feel comfortable. Many are killed crossing roadways along the way. If they do survive the journey back, they usually resume their conflict behavior. And new bears will continue to be lured in as long as attractants remain.

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 sources, you can eliminate the problem and help keep people safe and bears wild.


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 of North America can be brown, cinnamon or blond.

Learn more about the American black bear (Ursus americanus).

Learn how to tell the difference between black black bears and grizzly bears.