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Bears begin to emerge into a winter world

Bears are beginning to emerge from hibernation and to raid birdfeeders in Kent. DEEP photo

KENT—Bears are beginning to make their way to bird feeders, looking for a mid-winter snack when they should be slumbering in their dens.

Recently, there have been posts on one of Kent’s community Facebook pages showing shaggy bruins that didn’t get the memo that it’s time to hibernate.

But is this normal? Has the warm winter thrown off their sleep cycle, and can they thrive if they emerge before there is adequate food?

Don’t worry, says Melissa Ruszczyk, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

“Bears are slightly different than other hibernators in that they do get up in winter,” she said. “When they go into torpor, their bodies just slow down, their metabolism and breathing slow and their body temperature drops. They are fully capable of living off their fat reserves for four to six months.”

Prior to going into torpor, bears enter hyperphagia, a period when they increase feeding activity to fatten up.

“They can require up to 20,000 calories a day,” said Ruszczyk. Those calories are supplied by foods such as acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts and black walnuts. “They eat the heavy fats and pack on a lot of weight,” she said.

Fat and happy, they look around for a den, which may be a recess in rocks, a slash pile or in a nest created at the base of a tree. They may even choose to den under a deck or shed if there is a ready supply of food nearby.   

Ruszczyk said bears differ from true hibernators such as bats and woodchucks in that their bodies become highly efficient factories producing their own nutrients. 

“True hibernators wake up every couple of days for water and have different things they collect and keep in their dens. But a bear can lay there and live off its fat. It doesn’t defecate or urinate—they recycle waste as proteins. There’s almost no muscle atrophy and they can get up at the snap of twig and run if they need to,” she explained.

Getting up for a snack does not mean they will want to stay up. Such behavior may be more common where there is the hope of human-related food, she reported, but in more rural areas a couple of 50- or 60-degree days may not cause them to stir.

Females are more likely to remain in their dens because their babies are born in January, and they will not leave them.

“They probably won’t come out until late March or early April because the cubs can’t keep up with mom,” RRuszczyk said. “She might move them a couple of yards because she’s hungry, but she won’t leave them until they can climb a tree.” 

So, does a bear who has put in a restless winter feel grumpy in the spring?

Ruszczyk said that bears have acclimated to human society and are unlikely to launch an unprovoked attack. “Bears view people differently than dogs,” she said. “Dogs are a concern. We have reports of people saying their dog treed bear and they think it’s funny. It’s not. You were lucky your dog wasn’t hurt or killed. Dogs are protectors and they will rush a bear.”

Bears living in suburban areas do not generally fear humans. ““That’s not to say they couldn’t attack a human, but they are becoming habituated,” said Ruszczyk. “They have a good sense of hearing and smell and, generally, they are fully capable of getting away. They usually don’t have a reason to fear us.”

Habituation is “not good for bears or good for the public,” she said, adding that people should be alert for warning signs that a bear is becoming annoyed. “She might sit at the base of a tree and make huffing noises and slap the ground,” Ruszczyk said. “I would think anyone would know that is a warning.”

The range of black bears is expanding to the south and east in Connecticut with 165 of 169 towns reporting bear sightings. At present, there is plenty of food for bears in western Connecticut but, because the population is larger here, there are more severe complaints. 

There were only about half as many bear home entries in 2023 as compared to 2022, when 67 incidents were reported. This past year, 35 home entries occurred and were reported to DEEP. Plentiful rainfall in 2023 led to abundant natural foods, which could explain why fewer bears entered homes. 

“There are monetary issues with home entries,” Ruszczyk said. “Often there is food loss and the cost of cleaning up. I would say we have biological carrying capacity, but we have reached our cultural carrying capacity in Litchfield County and we could sustain a hunt. Hunting is a piece of the puzzle, but it isn’t the whole thing. It’s about managing people, too.”

DEEP launched Be Bear Aware last year, a campaign using billboards and digital media messages to reduce conflicts by addressing food habituation. As bears begin to emerge from hibernation, the Be Bear Aware campaign will ramp up again. 

Ruszczyk is not an advocate of feeding wildlife at any time. The vast majority of bear conflicts result from improperly stored trash or birdfeeders. To help restrain bird feeding, there is a statewide law banning intentionally feeding dangerous wildlife and nine Connecticut towns have ordinances forbidding behavior that attracts bears.

Kathryn Boughton
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