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Black Bear

North American Black Bear liveBlack bears are one of the more common species in North America. They live in many different habitats are not picky about what they eat. Their keen sense of smell gives them much information about their environment and foods they eat.

The American black bear is considered a threatened species in some areas. In fact they are protected in the states of Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. In other areas they are actively hunted and are subject to open "hunting seasons".


Black bear anatomy includes a straight face and flat shoulders. It has ears that are often pointed and a short tail. Fur color can vary from black to chocolate brown with gray combinations. One of the more notable facts about this species is that they are excellent climbers, even when cubs.

The black bear is very adaptable. They are quite intelligent and curious. But this smaller bear is very shy and generally avoids confrontations. Records of human attacks are rare.


  • Size: Length is about 4 to 7 feet long. Weight is about 200 to 600 pounds.
  • Reproduction: Mating season vary depending on habitat climate but breeding usually occurs May through August.
  • Gestation: 60 to 70 days.
  • Birth: January or early February.
  • Litter size: 1 to 3 cubs. Baby pairs are common.
  • Birth Weight: Baby cubs are usually under one pound.
  • Vocalizations: Grunts, moaning sounds, and growling.
  • Threats: Loss of habitat, territory fragmentation, changes in environment due to global warming, poaching.


Black Bear cub climbing tree, California.Baby black bears are born and live in the safety of the mother's den during winter. The average cub litter size is 1 to 3. Babies are born blind. A black bear baby weighs between one half to one pound at birth.

They put on weight quickly. The mother spends the following year and a half weaning, feeding, and teaching her cubs what to eat and how to survive. At that point they venture on to live on their own.

The sad fact is that many baby cubs will not reach adulthood due to hunting and attacks from predators. The mother will usually mate every 2 years but frequency depends on food resources, age, environment, and habitat density.


The total black bear population is estimated to be between 600,000 to 700,000 (excluding baby cubs). Habitat distribution information suggests about 55% live in Canada, 40% live in the United States, and 5% are in Mexico (accurate population facts south of Mexico unknown). Thanks to conservation efforts their population in some areas, such as California, are on the increase.


Historic information suggests black bear habitat included most of North America including Alaska, Canada, almost all of the lower 48 United States, and Mexico. Today their home range territory is mostly in Alaska and Canada. Their territory is greatly reduced in Mexico. In the continental United States they live in less than 20% of their original range.

Black bears prefer to live in dense forests where there is a variety of food to eat and they can raise their cubs. But they have adapted to many different habitats. They build their dens in caves, burrows, tree trunks, and brush or grass nests. They collect grass and leaves to pad their dens.


American black bears are eating machines and are mostly vegetarian. Baby cubs are also voracious eaters. At the top of the food chain they are not picky about their diet. They will eat field grasses, roots, tubers, nuts, berries of all kinds, fruits, and other foods.

They also eat ants, grubs, termites, beetles, and other insects. Black bears also like salmon and other kinds of fish and will hunt for small mammals if available where they live.

They grip their prey with their sharp teeth or claws. If given the opportunity they will attack (or threaten) other predators to scavenge their prey. In fact wolves are weary of bears who monitor their hunting activities.


Black bears are shy and normally avoid people. Human attacks are rare. Still one should not get too close or feed them. They may become protective if cubs are present and may bluff intruders with fake charges.

When hiking it is a good idea to "announce" your presence by making noise. If you encounter a standing black bear, it is not threatening you. It is trying to get more information about you and your intentions.

The best defense is to back out of the area slowly. In parks such as Yosemite National Park in California, black bears are accustomed to people because they view them as a source of food handouts.


Black Bear in field seeking food before hibernationInformation about black bear hibernation suggests they enter a partial state of the process. Although there is a drop in body temperature, metabolic rate, and heart rate, they can awaken from their sleep to defend their cubs or ward off attacks if necessary.

Black bear hibernation can last up to 6 or 7 months depending on their habitat and climate conditions. They make use of their body fat and do not eat or pass any wastes. One of the more notable facts is that some do not hibernate as long or skip the process altogether when food is abundant.


North American Black bears like to swim. If there is water where they live they will exploit it for food. Since bears like to hunt fish they are not shy of water. In fact their baby cubs take to the water quickly.

In their search for food in their habitat they can cross ponds, lakes, and rivers to get to better feeding grounds (including campgrounds, lodges, and resorts). They use their powerful front and hind legs to paddle swiftly through water and are actually graceful swimmers.


At its normal pace black bears waddle slowly and casually. When in danger or hunting for prey they have the ability to burst into running mode with speeds up to 25 to 30mph. They can run for short distances only.


Black bear paws have short claws to help them climb, dig, gather plant food, and attack small mammals. They use their claws like fingers when they eat. Their front footprints have an oval base with a curved toe line. Hind tracks have a triangular indentation. Toes are spread out.

Depending on the ground surface their claws may not be visible making specie information more difficult. This is particularly true in soils that have a fair amount of sand such as grounds near lakes and rivers where they hunt for fish. Black bear cubs leave small prints with no claw indentations.


The largest black bear ever recorded in North America weighed 880 pounds and lived in North Carolina. Many facts including growth rate, habitat, time of year, diet, and gender determine how big a bear will grow. The difference in male/female weight can be up to 25% to 30%. Huge bears tend to be male.

Black bears will weigh more after they have bulked up in the summer prior to hibernation and before having baby cubs. The next biggest record black bear weighed 876 pounds and was in Minnesota. Larger claims in populated areas such as California have been made but never substantiated.


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