What bears do in October

October at a Glance: Hyperphagia is in full-swing. Bears may be awake and searching for food up to 20 hours a day. Many bears also look for den sites. Some pregnant females may den up by the end of the month. As days shorten, vehicle collisions rise.   

Bears Still Eating More, Sleeping Less

Hyperphagia is still in full swing all over the country in October and will continue as long as food is available. Even bears that won’t hibernate until December still industriously look for food practically around the clock and eat as much as they can find. For a bear, there’s no such thing as “too fat.” All those pounds of fat reserves will keep bears healthy all winter long.

Den-Up Isn’t Predictable

The bear calendar is driven less by dates and more by available food, weather and the general health and condition of the bear. In poor food years female bears may den-up by late October or early November; big males may stay out of their dens and search for food until late December or early January.

Climate Matters

Bears in northern climates generally enter their dens earlier than bears in the more temperate South or the warmer regions of the Southwest. In areas and at elevations where winter is knocking on the door, bears are seriously looking for winter quarters, and may enter their dens by the end of October. Bears in Florida and other parts of the South and Southwest may still be up and eating when the new year arrives.

Some Bears Don’t Den

In areas where bears have found dependable year-round supplies of human-provided foods, some bears no longer den at all. Many studies are underway to help us better understand how failing to hibernate affects bears’ health and lifespan.

What Makes a Good Den?

A bear den opening (photo by Rich Beausoleil)

Bear biologist Rich Beausoleil preparing to do a den check on a bear that’s part of a long-term research study. (Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife)

Despite folklore, most bears don’t den in big caves; bear dens need to be small enough to keep the bear nice and cozy all winter long. Cubs born this year will den with their moms, so she needs a den with room for the family.

The types of dens bears choose vary widely and are based both on availability and the needs of the individual bear. Some bears make their dens in hollow trees or logs, in a “nest” high up in a tree or under the root mass, or even in a nice brush pile or ground nest. Sometimes bears industriously excavate their own dens; often they simply take advantage of whatever natural or man-made spaces are available and fit their needs. Bear dens are often lined with grasses, leaves or needles and usually have small, camouflaged openings.

Moms-to-Be Need a Good Nursery Den

A culvert under a heavily-used road at a military training site made a cozy home for this enterprising bear family. (Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources) 

Bears that mated in the summer and will hopefully give birth over the winter work extra-hard to make sure they choose a den site that will keep their helpless newborn cubs snug, dry and safe from predators. If there’s a tall sanctuary tree young cubs will be able to climb if they’re in danger, all the better. In Pennsylvania, laurel thickets fit the bill; more than half of their pregnant females make their nests on the ground in dense thickets of laurel.

Do Bears Return to Dens?

There are some reports of individual bears using a particular den site more than once, but as a rule bears don’t return each year to the same den. However, female bears often remain in the same general vicinity.

It’s a Dangerous Month for Vehicle Collisions

October is one of the top months for vehicle collisions with animals, including bears. The days are getting shorter, and people are driving more at dusk, dawn and in the dark. Bears are typically active at dawn and dusk and because they are still in hyperphagia, their constant search for food takes them across roads more often. More than half of all vehicle collisions with animals involve deer, but hitting a bear is scary and dangerous – for people, vehicles and bears.

Wildlife Watch

If you’re driving with someone, put them on wildlife watch. Always drive at a reasonable speed and scan the sides of the road for tell-tale eyeshine. Bears prefer to cross from cover to cover, so pay extra attention in areas where bushes and trees are close to the road. Most insurance companies advise that if you see an animal in the road, lay on your horn, flash your high beams and try to avoid it if you can do so safely. If you can’t, don’t swerve into another lane or slam on your brakes unless you know you can do so safely. Sadly, the safest thing to do is to hit the animal. Who wants to do that? So slow down and pay attention.

State Farm estimates there were 13,687 claims for bear collisions between 2020 and 2021; they processed 2,350 claims for their policyholders. And that’s not counting the people whose insurance didn’t cover bear damage. The top five states for collisions with bears were California, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and North Carolina. People can get their vehicles repaired, but bears seldom walk away from high-speed collisions.

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