May at a Glance: All bears visit all the places where they reliably found food last year. Cubs learn how to climb up (and down) trees and learn to “talk.” Cubs are still nursing, but start experimenting with bear food. Mother bears sometimes leave the youngsters alone and travel up to two miles to search for food. Cubs alone aren’t usually abandoned.
How Big Is that Bear Cub?
Some cubs are born bigger and stronger than others, and litter mates can develop and grow at very different rates. In May, mother bears are still nursing their rambunctious youngsters. Cubs will begin experimenting with bear food, but typically aren’t fully weaned until late summer. A steady diet of their mother’s rich milk helps black bear cubs grow from about five pounds at eight weeks old to somewhere between 40 and 60 pounds by six months.
Close to Home
Mom and cubs hang close to the den at first. Cubs shadow their moms and start learning and mimicking some behaviors and vocalizations. Mother bears have a lot to teach their youngsters over the summer and fall so they’ll grow big and strong and know how to take care of themselves by next summer.
Polar bear cubs often get to ride piggyback on land, but young black bear cubs usually follow their moms. Cubs quickly learn to stick together and close to mom; mother bears will sometimes pick up a cub by holding its head in her mouth if one of them is lagging behind or having trouble getting over an obstacle. And occasionally a cub will “climb” up mom’s leg for a rest and a ride.
Ups and Downs of Climbing
For cubs, climbing up is instinctive. By May cubs can scoot up a tree faster than you can say “Look at that cute bear cub!” Cubs seem to enjoy climbing and will sometimes climb way up into the tree and then discover they’re not sure how to get back down again. Sometimes mom must climb up and show the cubs the proper technique for safely backing down the tree, which is pretty much the same way people back down a ladder, only faster.
Cubs Learn Bear Talk
Mother bears will spend the next several months teaching their cubs everything they need to know to eventually survive on their own. One of the first lessons are the vocalizations that mean “Danger! Get up that tree now! And “It’s safe to come down.” Cubs instinctively know how to cry “I’m hungry” and “I’m scared.” A mother bear sometimes sends the youngsters up a tree to keep them safe while she stretches out on the ground below and takes a much-needed nap.
Home Alone, Not Abandoned
If you come across a bear cub or two or three that seem to be abandoned, mom is probably off looking for food and has left the cubs at a “babysitter tree.” Or she may be nearby, patiently waiting for you to leave, so the longer you hang around, the longer the cubs will be on their own. If you have reason to believe a cub is truly orphaned, don’t touch it. Just take a photo, note the location and immediately leave the area. Then contact your state wildlife agency for further guidance.
Where’s the Food?
Bears have a built-in GPS, great long-term memories and an uncanny ability to find their way back to anywhere they found reliable sources of food last year. So, if you had any bear visits last year, make sure the bird feeders are down, there’s no pet food or birdseed outside and the garbage is in bear-resistant containers or stored securely somewhere bears can’t see, smell or get at it. Screened-in porches, inside the garage that’s always open, in your truck bed or outside the back door are not secure places.
Thanks for being BearWise and giving cubs a better chance to grow up wild.