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Black Bear (Ursus americanus) Facts

Of the three bear species (black, brown, and polar bears) in North America, only the black bear lives in Virginia. Shy and secretive, the sighting of a bear is a rare treat for most Virginians. However, bears are found throughout most of the Commonwealth, and encounters between bears and people are increasing. A basic understanding of bear biology and implementing a few preventative measures will go a long way to helping make all encounters with bears positive.

Physical Description

Adult black bears are approximately 4 to 7 feet from nose to tail, and two to three feet high at the withers. Males are larger than females. Black bears have small eyes, rounded ears, a long snout, large non retractable claws, a large body, a short tail, and shaggy hair. In Virginia most black bears are true black in color unlike black bears found in more western states that can be shades of red, brown or blond.

Depending on the time of year, adult female black bears commonly weigh between 90 to 250 pounds. Males commonly weigh between 130 to 500 pounds. The largest known wild black bear was from North Carolina and weighed 880 pounds. The heaviest known female weighed 520 pounds from northeastern Minnesota.

Distribution

The American black bear is found only in North America. Black bears historically ranged over most of the forested regions of North America, and significant portions of northern Mexico. There are approximately 900,000 black bears in North America. Black bears reside in every province in Canada except for Prince Edward Isle, and in at least 40 of the 50 states in the US. In the eastern United States, black bear range is continuous throughout New England but becomes increasingly fragmented from the mid-Atlantic down through the Southeast.

General Habitat: Incredibly adaptable, black bears occupy a greater range of habitats than any bear in the world. Bear home ranges must include food, water, cover, denning sites and diverse habitat types. Although bears are thought to be a mature forest species, they often use a variety of habitat types.

Longevity

Bears may live up to 30 years in the wild. The oldest documented wild bear in Virginia was 26 years of age when it was killed.

Solitary or Social?

Black bears are generally solitary, except sows caring for cubs. Adult bears may be seen together during the summer breeding period and occasionally yearling siblings will remain together for a period of time. Bears may also gather at places with abundant food sources.

Daily Activity Time

Black bears are typically crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn), but can be active any time of day.

Movements

Female black bears have smaller home ranges (1 to 50 square miles) than males (10 to 290 square miles). A male's home range may overlap several female home ranges. Bears may move further in times of less food like early spring. Dispersing yearlings, especially males, looking for new home ranges may also travel a great distance.

Breeding and Cubs

5 day old black bear cub (Mike Vaughan, VT)

Female black bears mature as early as three years old. Breeding occurs from mid-June to mid-July, but in the eastern deciduous forest, mating season can extend into August. Female black bears usually breed every other year and cubs are born from early January to mid-February weighing ½ to ¾ lbs. Anywhere from 1-4 cubs are born at a time and are raised by their mother for about 1½ years. First-year cub mortality rates are about 20%, primarily due to predation (foxes, coyotes, dogs, bobcats, other bears) or abandonment by their mother. Adult bears do not have natural predators except humans.

When the mother is ready to breed again, she will send her yearlings to fend for themselves during the summer months when food is usually abundant. Always hungry, these yearling bears, particularly the males, will seek easy sources of food. The ability to access human related food sources can spell trouble for these bears.

Denning

Bears may feed up to 20 hours per day, accumulating fat (energy) prior to winter denning. An adult male can gain over 100 pounds in a few weeks when acorn production is heavy. Depending on weather and food conditions, black bears enter their winter dens between October and January. Bears will not eat, drink, urinate or defecate while denning. Bears are easily aroused and may be active during warm winter days. They emerge from their dens from mid-March to early May. In Virginia, most bears den in large, hollow trees. Other den types include fallen trees, rock cavities, and brush piles in timber cut areas, open ground nests, and man-made structures (culvert pipe).

Foods

Black bears have a very diverse diet. They consume herbaceous plant parts, woody plant parts, flower/nectar/ pollen, fruit, terrestrial insects, juvenile and small mammals, juvenile and adult amphibians, and carrion. Bears are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, eating mostly plants in the spring, berries and insects in the summer, and nuts and berries in the fall. Carrion (dead animals) is often a part of a bear's diet. Although not typically and an active predator, rare occurrences of livestock predation is reported each year.

Spring Foods

  • Grasses/Forbes
  • Insects/Larvae
  • Skunk Cabbage
  • Squaw Root

Summer/Fall Foods

  • Berries
  • Hard mast (Acorns, Other tree nuts)
  • Autumn Olive
  • Dogwood
  • Wild Grapes
  • Serviceberry
  • Mountain-ash
  • Hawthorn
  • Chokecherry
  • Pokeberry
  • Sassafras

From Linda Masterson Living with Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country.