Meet the American black bear

My book club this month read “A Libertarian Walks into a Bear” by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It tells the true story of how a bunch of libertarians moved to Grafton, New Hampshire, with the goal of making it a libertarian utopia.

They somewhat succeeded? At the very least, they got rid of a bunch of government oversight, so you had people disposing of trash in a not bear-proof manner and even directly feeding bears.

The bears noticed.

And with no government oversight to help take care of the bears, the residents of Grafton kinda did whatever they wanted to discourage bears going through their garbage. Which, unsurprisingly, didn’t do much to actually keep the bears away.

So let’s talk about the star (in my opinion) of the book: the American black bear (Ursus americanus).

The American black bear (which I’ll refer to as just ‘black bear’ from now on) is the smallest bear in North America. But they’re still pretty big: adult males weigh between 126 and 551 pounds, and adult females weigh between 90 and 375 pounds. The range for size is due to seasonal variation, since black bears tend to weigh 30% more in the autumn than in spring.

Not always black!

The black bear is also the most widely distributed bear in North America – it can be found in forested regions from Canada all the way down to Mexico. Within this large range, you can find populations of black bears that are not black. Black bear fur can be white, blonde, cinnamon, light brown, or black, with many intermediate shades in between.

Black bears with white fur. Photo by Maximilian Helm. Retrieved from Flickr on 07/28/2022.

The variation in color seems to be related to where the bears are living. Most of the black bears living in the eastern part of North America are black; the bears on northwestern side of the continent are more likely to be cinnamon or blonde. You can find white and cream-colored black bears in Canada along the coastal islands and neighboring mainland of southwestern British Columbia. We don’t know for sure why there is so much variation in black bear fur color, but we think it may let them adapt to variations in their habitat – bears living in the dark, shady woods (more common in the East) tend to be darker than bears living in a more open landscape with lots of sun (more common in the West).

Of course, the fact that black bears can be brown means that you can’t rely on color to tell the difference between black bears and grizzly bears. Luckily, there are other physical differences between the two bear species! Black bears tend to have a straight face profile, while grizzlies have a curved profile. Black bears have longer, pointed ears; grizzlies, smaller and rounder ears. And perhaps most visible, grizzly bears have a large hump on their shoulders, while black bears do not.

Smarter than your average bear

Black bears are honestly pretty smart – some sources I read claim they are one of the smartest mammals out there. They have some numerical cognition, seeming to be able to count and differentiate between groups of various sizes. Black bears are very curious creatures and will learn quickly from their experiences. Some bears have even been known to learn the days and routes of garbage trucks and adjust their foraging accordingly.

In addition to their brains, black bears also have highly dextrous paws that can open jars and door latches. They’re also very strong and can flip 325-pound rocks with a single paw.

…do you see where I’m going with this?

Black bears have the brains to quickly learn where food is, the curiosity to figure out how to get it, and the dexterity and strength to retrieve the food. In addition, black bears have a sense of smell that is seven times stronger than a dog’s. They can smell a food source from two miles away! So you have to be pretty clever to stop a black bear from finding and getting food that it wants, AND you have to figure out how to stop it from eventually learning how to reach said food.

Honey is on the menu

Black bears aren’t particularly picky about what they eat, and their diet changes with the season.

When they come out of hibernation in the winter, there isn’t much around; black bears in early spring will rely on carrion from animals who died over the winter and small, newborn ungulates like fawns.

Yum, dandelions. Photo by Thomas Fuhrmann. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 07/28/2022.

As spring and summer arrive, they will eat the shoots, buds, and fruit from grasses, bushes, and trees. They also eat a lot of insects like bees and ants. Black bears will go after honey if they smell it and will even gnaw through tree trunks if they can’t reach a hive with their paws. Bees will try to sting a raiding black bear, but with little success: their thick fur protects them from stings on their body as they gorge on honey and bee larvae.

In the autumn, eating becomes a black bear’s full-time job. Mast (the fruit of forest trees and shrubs, like acorns and hazelnuts) is the most important part of their diet as they head into the winter and hibernation. Black bears will also capitalize on any food humans bring into the area, like birdseed in bird feeders and leftover food scraps in the garbage.

Special type of hibernators

Being not super picky about food is a great way to eat a lot of food. And black bears need to eat a lot of food to make it through the winter. All of the food they eat during the summer and especially the autumn must be enough to create enough fat stores to sustain them through the winter hibernation.

Black bear hibernation doesn’t look like the hibernation of other animals; in fact, there was a serious scientific debate over whether black bears hibernated at all.

For instance, most small mammals drop their body temperature during hibernation to help conserve energy. Black bears do, but not a whole lot – they stay pretty close to a non-hibernation body temperature. This means that they can wake up quickly and defend themselves and their cubs if needed.

Black bears also don’t need to wake up every so often to eat like other hibernating small mammals. Instead, they can rely entirely on their fat stores. These fat stores also function as hydration, since burning fat produces water as a by-product. Black bears also don’t need to worry about waking up to pee – their kidneys are not very active during hibernation, and any urine created is reabsorbed through the bladder and essentially internally recycled.

Black bear hibernation seems in part to be related to where they live and the current climate. Bears that live in warmer climates may only hibernate for a few weeks or not at all. If there’s a warm spell in the middle of the winter, you could see a black bear come out of hibernation and wander around for a bit before eventually going back to sleep when the weather turns.

Cub time

Winter is also when black bear cubs are born. Adult black bears will come together briefly (for only a few hours or up to several days) to mate during the summer. The cubs are then born in the mother’s winter den in January or February, where they’ll stay with the mother until it’s spring.

A female black bear can have between one and five cubs per litter, but they typically have only two or three. The cubs weigh less than a pound when they are born – a far cry from the hundreds of pounds they will be as adults! In fact, black bears have the smallest young size relative to the eventual adult size of any placental mammal.

Although black bear cubs are weaned from their mother’s milk at six to eight months old, they will stay with their mother for about a year and a half. During this time, the mother will teach her cubs how to be a bear.

Black bear cub. Photo by Tina Shaw / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved from Flickr on 07/28/2022.

What to do if attacked by a black bear

First, know that you probably won’t be attacked by a black bear. Black bears typically aren’t aggressive; they are actually pretty timid. They don’t see humans themselves as a source of food (just our trash), so they are unlikely to be hunting you. And unlike grizzly bears, black bears won’t attack you if they are with their cubs.

HOWEVER, black bears are still animals, and wild animals at that! Just because they probably won’t attack you doesn’t mean they can’t, especially if you get all up in their business and they feel threatened. A domesticated cat will scratch at you if they feel threatened or annoyed – black bears are no different.

So, if you see a black bear and are worried, what should you do?

First, don’t panic! Walk away slowly and calmly, and don’t run. Running could trigger the bear to try to chase you, and a black bear can easily outrun a human. As you walk away, start talking to the bear so that it knows you’re there and doesn’t get startled.

If you got really close to the bear before it noticed you, it may become defensive. A defensive bear will try to scare you off with threatening behavior – snorting, pawing at the ground, and even bluff charging.

If the bear starts walking towards you, get loud. At this point, you want to be trying to scare the bear away. Make noise, yell, and throw things at the bear.

If for some reason the bear does physically attack, fight back. Do NOT play dead. Just kick, punch, and hit the bear with whatever you have, and aim for the face, nose, and eyes.

But remember: this probably won’t happen! Especially if you treat black bears (and other wild animals) with the respect they deserve. Minimize the close contact you have with bears and other wildlife. The best way to watch black bears is from a safe distance.


Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Bear Biology

Animal Diversity Web

National Park Service

Discover Wildlife

North American Bear Center



National Wildlife Federation

Western Wildlife

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