Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Black Bear Foods In The Spring

Shenandoah National Park Black Bears

Ahhhhhhhh! The Spring Equinox has finally arrived! I love this time of year - the rebirth of the Earth. It also signals the beginning of Black Bears slowly emerging from their Winter dens. Adult males (boars) generally leave their dens first while mothers with cubs are the last to leave their dens. Seeing the new cubs is always a delight for me as they begin their venture into the outdoor world and everything is new and a first for them. And of course there are the yearlings, who don't know it yet but have spent their last Winter with mom and will be on their own in just a couple of months.

Food is very scarce in early Spring. Most bears will remain lethargic (sluggish) and all bears will lose weight at this time of year. During this period, bears voluntarily eat and drink less than they will later on in late Spring. To conserve energy, they rest a lot. Some are fortunate enough to find deer carcasses of Winter's victims.

Spring comes in steps at Shenandoah National Park. If you visit the park around the first week of April, you'll drive through a 'hint of springtime' in the bottom elevations, and then ascend into Winter in the top elevations where the trees are still bare and the grass is still brown. For weeks afterwards you will see Spring gradually make its way up to the top. Therefore most bears will not emerge from dens until there is some food available, the very same reason they go into dens in late Fall.

Squawroot (or cancer root)

Acorns are usually the last supper and the first breakfast for black bears across the Southern Appalachians. If leftover acorns are scarce, bears will still be sniffing around oak trees because the number one spring bear food in the Southern Appalachians is a parasitic plant that is partial to oak and beech roots. Conopholis Americana, known as squawroot or cancer root, grows in clumps on oak and/or beech roots. The scaly, yellowish stalks emerge around April and it flowers soon after. Individual stalks may reach a height of 10 inches. The stalk is reminiscent of an inverted pine cone. As the plant ages it becomes browner. Squawroot makes up about 10 percent of the total spring diet of black bears across the region.

A Sow feasting on Catkins (male flowers) in an oak tree

The rest of their Spring diet may differ among the many ecoregions of North America. However, certain trends are evident: grasses, green shoots, sedges, forbs (broadleaved plants), and certain leaves (dependant upon the region). Other sources include roots and sometimes young tree bark and twigs, stem and roots of bull thistle, large leaf aster, hazel leaves, and catkins from several variety of trees.

In late Spring (May), mother nature begins to 'crank it up' and green plants begin to grow and trees begin to sprout leaves. Fresh vibrant green leaves appear on trees and the forest floor comes to life once again. Bears begin to eat sprouting grass, emerging herbs and young leaves. Insect grub also comes into the equation now. Cubs taste what their mother eats, but swallow very little of it. They still rely on their mother's milk. Mother bears that are nursing young cubs continue to lose weight. Other bears slowly begin to gain weight.

Meat is a very small part of a black bear's diet except in late May and early June when Whitetail fawns are born. Bears don't seem to actively hunt fawns, but if one happens upon a fawn, it stops searching for other food (vegetation) and sniffs out the fawn and pounces on it. Newborn fawns make captures easy by lying still. However, once fawns reach about 10 days of age they change escape tactics. When bears approach, they get up and run and easily escape. Black bears lack the agility to catch dodging animals. The bears then soon ignore the scent of fawns until the next Spring when a new batch of catchable fawns are born.

A young bear catches a whitetail fawn

Conclusion: know where to find the early Spring foods and you'll be able to consistently locate early season black bears.

 A sow eating her whitetail fawn capture
View a better quality version of this video at my Web site.