Black Bear

A large adult black  bear alongside the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

Common Name: Black Bear, American bear, Cinnamon bear, Glacier bear, Kermode bear – Alternative common names based on minor differences in appearance and DNA among the 16 recognized subspecies.

Scientific Name: Ursus americanus – From the Latin word ursus meaning bear and a Latinized word for American; literally American bear.

Potpourri: Large animals evoke fear due to bulk alone; weight has consequence. Even docile behemoths like cows can cause concern under some circumstances. Few fear cows, even though more people are killed annually in bovine incidents (20 mostly in farm and stockyard incidents) than bears (one usually in remote boreal locations). Many people are cynophobic with justification; dogs are responsible for 28 human deaths annually, mostly in suburbia. [1] Bears and deer are the only large wild animals in much of North America, each weighing in at two to three hundred pounds; bears trigger the instinctual large animal animus whereas deer do not, they escape in frantic flight at the merest provocation. However, while bears are big, black, hairy and wild, they are also instinctual to a fault; lumbering away with surprising speed and agility, sometimes up a tree, to get away from those who stand upright. There is nothing to fear about bears but fear itself, so fear not.

Bears are not among the chimerical beasts of fantasy. Unlike the big bad wolves and their fairy tale assaults on little pigs and red riding hoods, bears generally fare well in storylines as not only benign but lovable. They are anthropomorphized as papa, mama and baby who discover a young woman who had broken into their house and eaten their food. Winnie the Pooh is the star resident of Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood and Yogi is the bane of the rangers of Jellystone Park. Smokey the Bear says only you can prevent forest fires. Most children grow up with at least one teddy bear, the first stuffed animal of the consumer society. Ironically, Roosevelt’s namesake bear was the unlikely outcome of a bear-hunting trip in 1901 in which the famed big-game-hunting president failed to find his quarry and was offered a shot at a trussed bear captured by his colleagues. His refusal based on the unsportsmanlike conduct of killing a defenseless bear made good newspaper copy and became the subject of a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman in The Washington Post on 16 November 1902. Morris Michtom of Brooklyn saw the cartoon and made the first “Teddy’s Bear” in 1902, founding the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company based on its worldwide popularity. [2] Bears evoke the frivolity, gentleness and camaraderie of the Teddy Bears Picnic.

It is when the dangers lurking in the forest become mindful that bears enter the picture as a threat. Dorothy asked the Tin Man if there were any animals in the forest on their way to Oz and he responded that there were “lions and tigers and bears,” immediately echoed by the Scarecrow. An ostinato ensues as the terrorized trio dances on their now troubled way only to encounter the Cowardly Lion; the inclusion of bears with fierce feline carnivores has ever after prevailed. This notwithstanding the fact that lions are from Africa, tigers are from South Asia, and bears are from northern forests and mountains in Eurasia and North America; it would have taken a wizard to bring them all together but then again Oz is almost zoo backwards. The idea of being alone and vulnerable, possibly a mild form of agoraphobia, stimulates the amygdala to send signals to the pre-frontal cortex for information about dangers in the woods. Since bears are the only large potentially dangerous animals left in our woods, a thought supported by the lions and tigers and bears of movie archive memory, the response is swift and sure: Beware of Bears. But black bears are not carnivores like cats and dogs, they are omnivores eating mostly fruits, nuts and insect larvae. While they may be big, they are not genetically inclined to see a human as a meal but rather as a threat. The correct response from a cognitive brain would be: Be Wary of Bears.

Cognition is knowledge in the broadest sense; a result of perception, memory, and judgement. The perceived fear of bears is similar to fear of flying in two important ways. Fatalities as a result of either are vanishingly small. There are about 3 commercial aviation accidents in the U. S. involving injury for every million flights; there were no fatalities in 2014 or 2015. [3]. Between 1900 and 1980, there were a grand total of 23 confirmed fatalities due to black bears, mostly in Canada. [4] The last fatal black bear attack in the eastern United States was in New Jersey in 2014, the first ever recorded in that state. [5] On the negative side, fatalities as a result of either flying or bears are gruesome to the imagination; being torn to pieces by high velocity airplane parts or by ursine claws and teeth are equally horrific. High consequence, low probability events are subject to the mind’s wandering reveries that emerge as nightmares when the unconscious is queried in dreaming. Being mauled by a bear is a frightening thought that can be easily avoided by staying away from black bear wooded haunts altogether. There is another approach.

The Black or American bear is found only in North America, with a population estimated at approximately 750,000 ranging from Florida and northern Mexico to the northern reaches of Alaska and Canada. They are called black bears because they generally dark but can range from light brown (Cinnamon bear) to white (Kermode bear of coastal British Columbia). Black bears have excellent senses. They see colors and have good visual acuity for near-field objects. They hear a broader frequency range than humans with a greater sensitivity. Their olfactory area is 100 times that of humans; their sense of smell is exceptional. A group of bears is called a sloth from the Old English word slow the which means slow, a term rarely used since they appear ponderous but in actuality they can run 30 miles per hour. They can swim more that a mile in fresh water. Black bears are normally silent; they make blowing noises and clack their teeth when they are agitated. The bear growl heard in movies is generally created by slowing down the growl of a wolf in order to provide the desired ferocious effect.

The cognitive way to deal with black bear phobia is to use the knowledge stored in cortical memory and apply judgement, the essence of human brain physiology. Relevant knowledge about the life cycle and evolution of black bears is key to understanding their behavior and what to do about it. Perhaps the single most important fact is that not all bears are created equal; there are black, brown, and white (or polar) bears. The brown bear commonly called grizzly in the west and simply brown bear in Alaska (with the scientific name Ursus arctos horribilis it could be called horrible bear) is often conflated with the black bear (Ursus americanus). Grizzlies are larger than their darker, smaller cousins and can be up to seven feet tall with a commensurate weight of 800 pounds. They are also more aggressive; the 60,000 odd grizzly bears are responsible for half of all bear deaths even though there are at least ten times as many black bears. Why they are more aggressive is a matter of evolutionary inbreeding, it apparently affords some survival benefit. Aggression may also have to do with their need for more food in sustaining greater bulk; a hungry bear is a desperate and dangerous bear. It is demonstrably true that grizzly bears are staunch defenders of their cubs; about three quarters of fatal attacks involve a female and her cubs. This is likely also evolutionary, as grizzlies are second only to the musk ox among North American mammals for slow gestation rates; the cubs stay with the mother for up to three years and do not breed until age five. A long-term genetic investment warrants protection. [6]

Black bears are not aggressive. On the contrary, they are beyond skittish; standard protocol is to slowly back away if possible, making noise and looming large by raising your arms if approached. Bears are frequently seen from a distance in the Appalachians and some keep a running tally, the event being so notable; mine stood at 22 at the turn of the millennium. An ambler’s anecdote occurred on one of those rarified fall days after the passing of a cold front, a day meant for hiking in the mountains. The trail was silently brisk, occasional rays of sunlight cut through the amber-red canopy limning alternating bands of light and dark that gave a textured look to the forest floor. Looking up from the trail to find the next blaze, there was a rustle of movement just off the trail about twenty feet ahead as two bears, one large and one small came into focus and then without warning a sudden crash of bushes revealed the squinty eyes of a third bear not four feet away. Time stood still as the options of freeze, flight, or fight vied for amygdala dominance. All was for naught; in the blink of an eye they disappeared. If there is a bear heaven, this was bear rapture. Standing dumbstruck for several minutes waiting for the pounding heart and adrenaline surge to abate, the hike ended several hours later; the bear count now raised to 25. [7]

That three bears would fearfully take flight from a single human that could easily have been the meal needed for winter hibernation would seem implausible. Why should the largest carnivore in the forest with no natural predators be afraid of anything? The reason must be that the evolution of the black bear favored a genotype that shied away from encounters with other animals. There are two plausible hypotheses; there is no way to test either. The first is that black bears evolved in the Pleistocene Epoch when there were many large mammals – megafauna – including several sizable predators such as dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, and the much larger short-faced bears. The black bears that ran away survived. The second is that human hunters, first the Native Americans who killed with Clovis points and later Euro-Americans who killed with guns gradually exterminated any bears that came their way, leaving the timid ones who hid to propagate the species. [8] A second flight strategy employed by bears may provide some insight into which of these two theories makes the most sense. Bear cubs will instinctively climb trees when threatened as will adults under duress (grizzly brown bears don’t climb trees and polar bears don’t have any trees to climb). It is more likely that this would be a good tactic to employ in escaping from a large predator that could not climb in pursuit; it would be counterproductive against hunters who frequently tree bears to shoot them. The bottom line is that most black bears are shy and will run away at the merest of provocations. Note that this is most but not all.

Why some bears become human predators is a question that merits thought and discourse. The purpose of sexual union is genetic diversity for improved survival potential. Some mutations are good and prevail and some mutations are not so good and dissipate but there are and always will be aberrations. Just as sociopathic killers emerge randomly from the human genome, albeit sometimes due in part to nurture and not nature, there are bad news bears out there as well. Both the evil human and animal phenotype are rare enough that you would not and should not feel threatened when you go out in public for the fear of the former or the woods for fear of the latter. The problem with bears is more subtle than that; the more they become accustomed to humans and the tasty foods that we bring, the less shy they become. This can lead inexorably to aggression. Yellowstone National Park unintentionally became a test site for bear management practices in the last century. It started with garbage from the park lodges left outside and progressed to bears begging for food along the road. The first human fatality confirmed to have been caused by bears was in 1916; by 1931 there were an average of 48 injuries annually due to bear interactions. It was thus almost certain that human food resulted in bear aggression was proposed and all garbage was securely stowed and visitors were admonished not to feed the bears verbally and with signage; there is now on average one bear-related injury per year. [9] A cautionary note: the resurgence of black bears in the Appalachian Mountains in consonance with human population expansion into their mountain habitats does not bode well for either species. More bears will need more food and they will look for it in the dumpster of the food establishments that proliferate with the people they serve.

Black bears are not overly protective of their cubs when approached by humans. This contradicts the nearly universal lore that is based on the grizzly bear paradigm. It also conflicts with the broader notion that female mammals nurture their young with the mammary glands for which they are named and are therefore gene-bound to protect their offspring against any and all threats. For most mammals (and birds for that matter), protection of the young is an essential behavior. It follows evolution’s selectivity, since an immature animal that does not reach maturity will leave the gene pool; protecting the young should be a dominant trait. But female black bears with cubs, for reasons that are not clear, do not become aggressive when encountered. There are a total of zero reported incidents of fatal black bear attacks involving cubs. [10] As another ambler’s anecdote, a snowy, winter hike several years ago provides one data point. Approaching a trail switchback, two small black roundish shapes became visible in the upper branches and a second dark blur at the base of a bare tree at the turn. Deliberations about what to do next were cut short by the abrupt and rapid departure of the mother bear at the base into the valley below. Shortly after, the two bear cubs plunged down the tree in near freefall like acrobats and sped off in the same direction. What to make of this? The bears probably heard us coming just before we saw them and the two cubs took to the tree. The mother bear may have been trying to draw us away from their refuge but was in no way aggressively standing ground or approaching. The cubs evidently made some sort of risk judgement and elected to evacuate. What is unequivocal is that the cubs initially climbed a tree and that the mother took no defensive action. It worked for them that day and hopefully they all survived the winter.

The life cycle of the black bear is a phenological marvel; the seasonal transition from forager in summer to hibernator in winter depends on finding adequate fattening food in the fall and recovery food in the spring – hunt, eat, sleep, repeat. Although bears are in the order Carnivora (literally ‘flesh devourers’) they are omnivorous with a high preference for insects, nuts, fruits, and some vegetation, oftentimes traveling more than fifty miles from their home range while foraging. Insect larvae are the major source of animal protein; hornets’ nests are dug up to retrieve the larval brood comb while stoically suffering persistent stings mitigated by the thick fur of their incipient winter coats. Their taste for insects extends to ants which they consume in vast quantities; the pupae and larvae have a higher fat content than the adults and are preferred. The red meat in their diet consists largely of deer carcasses winter-killed and neglected by hunters or road wounded survivors that later expire in the woods; in some instances, they drag the carcass to denser cover to shield it from other predators. On occasion, fledglings and eggs are consumed opportunistically, the feathers of older fowl are an effective deterrent. Acorns and beech nuts are sometimes accessed by climbing trees; crude nest-like platforms are assembled to provide stability while pulling down branches for harvest. The fruits and berries of fall provide bears with many of the calories needed to add weight for the long winter’s sleep. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and the various cherries are all voraciously consumed; small trees are often bent to the ground to strip every branch. [11] Bear scat is testimony to the ingredients of the diet of the black bear; fruit seeds are pervasive. Commonly found on trails particularly during the autumnal feasting period, bear scat generally has a rather pleasant smell; it contains no parasites that are harmful to humans unlike most other carnivores. [12]

Black bear scat is filled with fruit seeds that provide for the next generation of plants and berries. Nature in action

Black bear hibernate from up to seven months in the north to not at all in the south according to food availability. Hibernation is an adaptation of some boreal mammals characterized by near stasis of metabolic activity so to mete out the saved fat energy of autumnal gorging over the long haul. Black bears build a new den in a new location every year to protect against discovery and intrusion, a behavior consistent with their general aversion to anything that moves. Choosing a likely looking burrow, cave, rock crevice, hollow tree or even a slight depression on the ground, they prepare the nest by laying down a layer of insulation consisting of stripped bark, leaves and club moss. One of the more interesting hibernation adaptations is the anal plug. Just before retiring for the winter’s rest, bears have a last meal of leaf roughage that forms a foot-long stopper to prevent befouling the nest that is retained until spring [13] Bears remain healthy through long hibernation by producing a bile fluid called tauroursodeoxycholic acid (TUCDA) that prevents gallstones, a condition caused by the unusually high levels of cholesterol sustained during the long sedentary winter. Their retained urine does not poison them, but rather is broken down to produce nitrogen for the creation of proteins to maintain muscle mass. Human exploitation of animals is nothing new and bears are no exception. Bears have been important in traditional Chinese medicine for millennia, and not, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, as an aphrodisiac. The bile fluid from the gall bladder is used in the treatment of cancers, burns, asthma and liver damage, particularly that associated with the over-consumption of alcohol. China has bear bile farms where about 10,000 bears are sequestered with surgically implanted devices to facilitate bile removal. Each bear produces enough bile in its five-year life to account for 220 gall bladders from wild bears. Synthetic TUCDA from cow bile is used in Western medicine to dissolve gallstones. [14]

The mating season for black bears generally occurs in the early summer months as the males signal their proximity and amorous intentions by rubbing against trees to leave their scent for any interested female. Females also leave scent markings, though less frequently and later in the summer. Female bears have some degree of control over the fertilization process, the eggs are not released from the ovaries until after mating has occurred so that implantation of the fertilized eggs in the uterus does not occur until early winter, a practice known as delayed implantation. This prolongs the period of time between mating and parturition and results in a longer gestation period. It is practiced by a number of mammals, mostly carnivores, including bears, badgers, weasels, otters and wolverines. It is not altogether clear what utility delayed implantation imparts to a species. One theory is that the mating time is set to coincide with the animals’ maximum nutritional health at the height of food availability. Delayed implantation is necessarily employed to extend the gestation period so that birth does not occur at the beginning of winter, as this would not be conducive to survival of the offspring. An alternative theory consistent with current thoughts about selectivity is called cryptic female choice; the male with the best sperm wins. [15] Female black bears normally give birth to two cubs biennially in January. They weigh about one pound at birth and spend the next three months nursing, emerging from the winter den in the spring weighing about six pounds. The cubs remain with the mother for about seventeen months when they are forced away before the next mating cycle. Male bears are solitary and take no part in the raising of the cubs that they may or may not have sired. The ratio of females to males is one-to-one at birth. However, as the peripatetic males are killed much more frequently by hunters than the females, the sex ratio of adult bears can be as high as four-to-one. Almost all adult bears die from human-related activities, primarily hunting. The average age at death of hunted bear populations is 4 years. [16]

There is no reason to avoid bears at all costs nor is there a reason to seek them out in their habitat absent some necessary hunting. The proliferation of white-tailed deer and Canada geese is instructive to any discussion of population dynamics. In the absence of predation, all living things will continue to propagate until the food runs out, pushing ever onward and outward in search of new opportunity. Adult bears have no predators except humans and each bear requires roughly a five-mile radius to support nutritional needs. [17] A stable population requires one cub to replace every adult bear. Absent predation bears live for 25 years so that an average female could produce 20 cubs over a lifetime. This is not substantially different from human population growth potential with commensurate problems of resource allocation and waste disposal. Bears will spread out just like people if allowed to proliferate unchecked, their foraging activities will of necessity extend to the backyard and ultimately the kitchen. Bear avoidance is unnecessary, but certainly preferred from the bear’s perspective. They are the capstone species of the forest as much as the bald eagle is master of the skies; both should be appreciated and revered equally. To see a bear in its native habitat is to fully experience the humble honesty of natural life, and the solace of its simplicity. Nothing to fear.


1. Ingraham, C. Chart: “The animals that are most likely to kill you this summer” The Washington Post June 16, 2015. The numbers are taken from the CDC data base for the years 2001 to 2013.
2. A replica of the original teddy bear is at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York
3. National Transportation Safety Board data.
4. Bryson, B. A Walk in the Woods, Broadway Books, New York. 1998. Bryson quotes statistics from Bear Attacks: Their Cause and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero.
5. This is an excellent summary of data on bear attacks; it is compendious and factual.
6. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Fact Sheet.
7. Needham, W. “Bear Encounters of the Third Kind” Potomac Appalachian, PATC Newsletter, Volume 28, Number 10, November 1999.
8. Meltzer, D. Op. cit. pp 255-267.
9. Yellowstone National Park conducted an experiment to test the theory that feeding bears resulted in bear attacks.
10. The North American Bear Center located in Ely, Minnesota it is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about bears.
11. Holland, M. “Black Bear Diet” at
12. website Op. cit.
13. Whitaker, J. National Audubon Field Guide to North American Mammals, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996, pp 703-706.
14. “The Bear Facts: The East Asian Market for Bear Gall Bladder” Traffic Report 1995 at
15. Orr, T. and Zuk. M. “Reproductive delays in mammals: an unexplored avenue for post-copulatory sexual selection” Biological Reviews, Cambridge Philosophical Society, 2014.
16. Whitaker, Op. cit.
17. website Op. cit.