BY SOME STANDARDS, the New England winter is lengthy and harsh. When the landscape starts to turn green and birds begin to sing, many take subconscious comfort in this change. There are unique occurrences in spring that remind outdoor lovers that nature has begun a new season.
One creature embodies this emergence in a deliberate showing that speaks to the resilience and stability of the natural world. Along with nesting birds, spawning fish, and rabbits chasing each other in the underbrush, black bears follow a life cycle that seems quite busy in May.
Most everyone understands that bears spend the winter in varying states of hibernation. A female builds a den alone and emerges as a young family of three or four when winter ends. The cubs are very small, defenseless, and in crucial need of training.
A sow has the task of protecting her young and teaching them how to survive in varying habitats. In one summer, their skills must be sharp enough to eventually survive on their own and renew the life cycle.
One of the most important lessons concerns food availability. Cubs must learn how to take advantage of a wide range of plants and animals to grow, add fat and prepare for the upcoming winter.
Black bears are categorized as omnivores and their diet is vast and includes … well, almost everything.
At first emergence, sows and cubs are often seen in lush, green fields where they eat the fresh, succulent grasses and sprouts. Quickly, berries, fruits, and soft mast are consumed with great enthusiasm.
When summer starts to wind down and the days get short, black bear cubs have learned a lot, gained significant weight and are prepared to spend one more winter under the careful protection of their mother.
After a second winter in hibernation, one-year-old bears emerge much different from their first. Larger, smarter and in need of more food, they burst onto the scene with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning.
In black bears’ second year of life, their instinct and behavior is much like a one-year-old dog. They have defined skills, are full of energy and occasionally make fools of themselves by roughhousing with a sibling, falling down or covering themselves with dirt and mud.
The appearance alone of a yearling bear makes them unique and easy to identify. At about 30 pounds, their legs seem too long, their ears are large and floppy, and their coat of fur is slight and spotty.
As the season progresses, they will eat buds, berries and other plants rich in carbohydrates. Additional food sources can be found when a now-stronger bear tears apart a stump or rotting log to find insects, grubs and even bees.
As I write, the bear cubs from last year are on the verge of getting turned loose.
By June, mating season will begin and yearling bears will be gently but firmly encouraged to fend for themselves and find their independence in nature. The sow is often ready to mate and the presence of a large male bear is enough to finalize the separation.
In the next few weeks, I expect to see the elusive but curious behavior of yearling bears. Their serious yet playful behavior presents a remarkable growth and wonderful sign of the changing seasons outdoors.