Early bears

Black bears like this one in the Upper Valley are beginning to emerge from their dens and search for food.

DESPITE the tease of warm weather lately, winter still has a firm grip on northern New Hampshire. The cold wind was blowing so hard last week that my bird feeders were often in a horizontal position, defying both logic and gravity. The next morning found them hanging empty in what seemed like exhausted resolve.

Andy Schafermeyer Adventures Afield

As I had done many times already, I walked through the knee-deep snow to put them back in order and refill their contents. My hands were cold as I held the metal scoop that pours cracked seeds and black sunflower seeds into the decorative metal cylinders.

The winter-like conditions made it easy to forget that March is ending and spring will soon be changing our landscape in many ways. One of the most common transitions of this time means not refilling bird feeders but taking them down. The reason is simple and the consequences are significant. Black bears are waking up from a long nap and will start wandering the late winter environment looking for food.

Unfortunately, the woods and waters of New Hampshire are not very fruitful and food sources for bears are very scarce. Bird feeders are an easy target. The way that a bear eats from these contraptions is not subtle and the evidence of their activity can be overwhelming. My college roommate ate in a similar fashion and it was not uncommon for him to finish a meal with food on his hands, face and, occasionally, in his hair.

In order to better understand the risk of black bear encounters, one must consider the process of hibernation. It is a unique and fascinating response by an organism when faced with harsh conditions and limited availability of the resources needed to survive.

This critical part of a bear’s lifecycle begins in November or December when an animal builds a den and initiates the process of putting their metabolism on hold for a few months. During this period, the body temperature actually drops and these large animals don’t need to eat or drink. Fat that has been built up all summer slowly breaks down into those crucial components that keep the animal alive.

In a hibernating bear, the heart rate will decrease and breathing will occur at a much slower rate. This process is especially important for female bears who give birth and incubate cubs during winter. While the mother maintains this lethargic state, her cubs stay awake, stay warm and nurse for sustenance.

When a bear finally emerges, male or female, it is hungry. They first follow a slow period sometimes referred to as “walking hibernation.” It is at this time that they move slowly, careful not to waste energy and methodically look for any type of food. An additional comparison can be made to my half-awake but very hungry college roommate here.

The fact that a large mammal can simply slow its biological processes is amazing and the changes are a fascinating adaptation to winter. The length of time that a bear spends in this fashion is dependent on the region and differs based on the severity of the conditions and food availability. In New Hampshire, the time for their emergence is now. Any bird feeder still hanging will be at risk for theft by these fascinating and very hungry creatures.

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Adventures Afield appears in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Contact Andy Schafermeyer at troutandsalmon1@gmail.com.

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