When you think about a bear den, what comes to mind? A hollow tree? A cozy cave? How about a pile of abandoned tires? Or under your porch? Bears can den up in all those places and many more.
Bears are flexible, creative and opportunistic; they will crawl into dens just about anywhere they feel safe and out of sight.
The stereotypical hollow tree makes a favorite den site as they are snug enough to conserve body heat but often there are no mature trees or large snags available. Ground dens are much more popular than you might think; they can be excavations done by the bear or insulating piles of whatever Mother Nature (or people) provide.
That can be a log on the forest floor, a rock outcropping, a thicket along a creek bottom, a pile of brush, logging slash or downed trees or an excavated area where people have done some of the work. There are documented cases of big bears simply lying down on the forest floor until they were buried in a blizzard of fallen leaves…and eventually snow.
Bear Biologists Share Den Stories
One Kentucky bear denned under an old piece of mining equipment that had been abandoned up on a mountain. A mother bear in West Virginia that denned up in the cloverleaf of an interstate became a YouTube sensation when she tried to exit with her newborn cubs in the spring.
In Colorado, one bear settled in for a long nap and woke up in a subdivision under construction. In Virginia, a bear was flooded out of her river bottom den and ended up snoozing on top of a 15-foot-high pile of storm debris. A big pile of tires dumped in the woods made a cozy den for one Alabama bear.
In communities in the heart of bear country, it’s not uncommon for a bear or two to den up under someone’s porch and head back to the woods in the spring. In warm climates in the south only pregnant females den up for the short winter; other bears may turn in for just a week or two or not at all.
When Do Bears Head to Their Dens?
It would be easy to say, “most bears are denned up by mid-December,” but it wouldn’t be accurate. In some areas, bears may den up before Halloween. In others, it’s January. Some bears may not den at all. No matter where you live in bear country, den entrance can stretch out over two or three months; check with your state wildlife agency for norms where you live. But remember, averages are not guarantees. There’s no magic date after which you can say, “We don’t have to worry about attractants until spring!”
Pregnant females everywhere are the first bears to turn in for the winter, followed by other females and young bears of both sexes. Healthy adult males with deep fat reserves are typically the last bears into their dens.
Being BearWise Helps Bears
Three steps to discourage bears from denning in or around your home.
- Close and lock pet doors, sheds, root cellars and outbuildings.
- Check under porches and decks for areas and openings where bears might curl up. Barricade as best you can.
- Don’t leave garbage, bird feeders or birdseed or food meant for deer or squirrels where bears can access it. Teaching bears to rely on human-provided food is bad for people and bears.
Do you have a summer home or cabin? In addition to locking it up tight for the winter, remove all food and anything with an odor that could attract bears.
Visit the BearWise Article Bank for more fascinating facts about hibernation and bears.
(Top bear photo provided by Georgia Department of Natural Resources)