North Carolina Bear Hunters Association

North Carolina Bear Hunters Association

Bear Eating Habits

There was an abrupt and obvious change in black bear eating habits in early December, as they dramatically shifted from natural agriculture foodstuff (corn, sweet potatoes, apples, etc.) to wild foods commonly consumed before going to den.

Bear Looking for Food

A lot of hunters noticed that the shift in eating habits was far more pronounced this fall and had questions about the causes. We presented our observations to NCWRC bear biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel. We told her that numerous hunters had observed the following behaviors this hunting season:

• By late November and early December, 80% of bears had quit feeding at the bait stations.
• Based solely on scat, we have seen that they have stopped eating our Ag foods and began eating black pulpy berries and an assortment of seeds about the size of grape seeds.
• By late December, it appeared that they had added long grass to their diet.
• Finally, there are a few large bears who defied the trend and continued eating Ag feeds as if they weren't concerned for weather or time of year. We would class most of these bears as solid trophy-sized bears.

Colleen Olfenbuttel's Answers

The reason hunters see bears ignore their bait/feed stations is that bears will usually choose natural foods, if available, over human-provided foods such as corn, sweet potatoes, and apples. During good mast years in the mountains, bears will ignore bait/feed stations and focus on consuming hard and soft mast. I have seen pictures of bears walking right by bait/feed stations; the bears are there, just not interested. The reason for this is that natural foods provide the nutrition that the bears need. Human-provided foods are often high in starches and other carbs and have little nutritional value. They may bulk them up when consumed in vast quantities, but there is little in nutritional content. Just imagine if a person only ate corn and potatoes. And as with people, bear size does not necessarily indicate good health. The nutrition provided by natural foods, such as berries, seeds, acorns, etc. cannot be easily replicated in human-provided foods, at least not the types often put out as bait/feed.

When I was in Virginia, we had captive black bears on an annual basis at our facility. These were often female bears that had been a nuisance in the wild during the summer. I would gradually reduce the amount of food given to the bears to mimic natural food conditions they would experience in the wild. Protocol dictated that we cease feeding at the end of December to assure the bears would be induced to hibernate. However, usually by mid-December, the bears would stop eating, even though we were still providing food. They would build their nests, limit their movements, become lethargic, and stop defecating. I rarely had to feed to the end of December, because the bears had stopped eating on their own.

Although our understanding is still limited, we believe that while food, and possibly colder temperatures, induce the physiological changes that occur in bears (lower heart rate, lower body temperature, recycling of waste, etc.), that the resulting physiological changes, in turn, cause them to lose their appetite completely and stop eating. This makes sense since it would be a disadvantage for a bear to be hungry when food supplies are typically scarce. However, over the past 20 – 30 years changes have occurred across the eastern U.S.; there are now foods available during the winter (year-round crop production, feed stations, bird feeders, garbage, etc.). Hibernation is an adaptation to survive a period when food is scarce. But in some areas, food is not scarce, and bears are responding by not hibernating.

In Northampton, Massachusetts, despite average winter temperatures in the teens, we had a few bears, male and female, that did not hibernate; they had keyed into a neighborhood that was providing year-round sunflower seeds. I found it amazing that thousands of years of adaptation to hibernate were being reversed. These bears ate, defecated, and were active, which indicated they had not gone through the typical physiological changes. Food overrode winter temperatures and overrode hibernation.

Bear Footprints

The same phenomenon is occurring in North Carolina. Typical factors that induce hibernation (cold temperatures and food scarcity) do not always occur on the coast, and it is common for coastal bears not to hibernate. Over the last 10 – 20 years, we have frequently observed delayed hibernation or no hibernation in our mountain bears, usually in males and females with yearlings. On the coast and mountain, female bears expecting to have cubs still hibernate, though coastal females are not as lethargic during winter as their mountain counterparts.