Because I am a scientist, I am often asked about things I know little about. But as knowing little is generally enough for many people, I always attempt an answer. For instance, I am often asked, “What color is a black bear?” In this case I can say that black bears are not blue, green, yellow, orange, or purple. If they want to make fools of us, however, and be brown or white, I’m sure they have their reasons. I am also asked, “Are black bears dangerous?” To this I say that while they may steal your picnic basket or raid your refrigerator, they seem no worse to me than teenagers in this regard. Black bears are omnivores, and will literally eat anything, including grubs, mushrooms, skunk cabbage, garbage, beavers, and rotting fish, not all of which you are likely to find in the average refrigerator. You can rest assured that if a black bear eats you, it likely mistook you for one of these things.
Male and female black bears are called boars and sows, the same as pigs. Although this can be confusing to some, they are not related. A good way to keep them separate is to remember that black bear hides are made into rugs, while pig skins are made into footballs. A group of black bears is called a sloth, which comes from the old English word for slow. This nomenclature may prove detrimental to anyone wanting to turn bears into rugs, as they are capable of running 30 mph, can weigh well over 500 pounds, and climb trees like a squirrel. Also they are omnivores, a point I think I should stress again.
Most black bears make their homes in forests, except those that do so in zoos. In the wilds from northern Mexico to Alaska and Canada, they may range up to eighty miles in search of food, mates, and places where they aren’t hunted. In zoos their ranges are much smaller, in part because the only thing they need to search for is their self-respect. If black bears in the wild choose their territories wisely, they may live up to forty years. In places where they are hunted, they live two to three years on average. Although they are not listed as a threatened species, I think they should consider filing an appeal.
There are anywhere from 600,000 to 900,000 black bears in North America, and they can be found in all but nine states. Hawaii is either too far to swim to, or they haven’t yet seen the travel brochures. Wild bears have too much self-respect to consider Delaware, which is no bigger than a zoo anyway. Most plains states lack woods, which would leave bears nowhere to relieve themselves without compromising a certain rhetorical question, not to mention leaving them more vulnerable to hunters and ridicule. That leaves Indiana and Illinois, and let’s be honest here – would you live there if you had other choices?
Black bears mate from May to July, beyond which they are too tired to continue. Usually in November, when the weather turns colder and the food scarcer, they begin their search for a den in which to hibernate. During hibernation they do not eat, drink, urinate, defecate, or watch TV. Their heart rate drops from 50 to 10 beats per minute, they take a breath only once every 45 seconds, they lose up to 45 percent of their body weight, and they dream of trout stocked streams and fully stocked refrigerators. The only time they wake up is when they give birth, or someone pokes them with a stick. Do not poke them with a stick. They likely haven’t eaten for a long time, and as I believe I mentioned, they are omnivores.
In January or February, black bear sows are woken from their sleep to give birth, a fact that reminds me I should never again complain about being woken from my sleep. The average litter consists of 2 – 3 cubs, each weighing ½ to 1 pound at birth. They are weaned at six months, then forced to eat grubs, garbage, and rotting fish until they learn to like it. Despite this, they stay with their mothers for a year and a half. Afterwards they leave in search of picnic baskets and refrigerators.
Black bears have a large brain to body size ratio, a good indicator of intelligence and feelings of superiority. Their memories are exceptional and standardized bear tests do not often fool them. Their nasal mucosa areas are about ten times larger than in humans and they know how to use them. They have a keener sense of smell than nearly every other animal and can track a refrigerator for miles. Their vision and hearing are also excellent. Their communication skills, however, leave room for improvement, consisting mostly of woofs, grunts, snorts, moans, and tongue clicks. They do not roar or growl, except when they are trying to make a name for themselves in a Hollywood movie. Despite these vocal shortcomings, they still scare people who got the message that they are omnivores.