American black bears are a subspecies of brown bears that inhabit most areas of North America. They are typically omnivorous and live in a wide range of habitats from forests to mountainsides, swamps, coastlines, tundra, and deserts. Seldom do they live in mountainous areas or grasslands as these generally lack the trees and shrubs necessary for them to thrive.
They typically weigh between 150-250 pounds and stand up to 3 feet at the shoulder.
American black bears usually have a life expectancy of around 20 years, though males may live up to 30 years or more due to extremely low mortality rates during hibernation periods when adult males can reach 10-12 years old.
American black bears are nocturnal and can often be spotted at dusk or dawn. They spend the majority of their days in good cover areas such as thickets, swamps, or scrubs. Black bears are excellent swimmers and can travel long distances over deep water without much effort. They will also roll in mud or dust to help remove the insects that they collect while foraging. Such behavior helps them stay clean and allows them to hunt more easily by providing an extra defense against predators that might track them by scent.
Although they prefer home ranges near forested areas, American black bears will sometimes travel several miles in search of food if their usual habitat dries up during a drought. They will even come into conflict with humans if there is access to food sources within 100 yards of an inhabited area. Bears typically avoid human activity and rarely show aggression unless provoked by people. Even when startled, bears typically run away rather than charge at a person.
American black bears are also social animals that may form bands consisting of up to 8 individuals called “couples”. Such groups are usually formed during the mating season and break up soon after the young have been born; however, these groups can form temporary bonds between unrelated members if the group is in danger (such as when a human disturbs their sleeping den).
American Black bears are large, heavily built omnivores. Males weigh on average and females weigh. Females typically give birth to 2-6 cubs after a gestation period of 4 ½ – 5 months.
They have distinctive rounded ears and their legs are short and their arms are long. Their body is covered in thick fur that gives them the appearance of being solid black. The nose is black with a white muzzle, mouth, and chin while the eye has a distinct white ring around it with no visible pupil or iris. Although black bears have been known to hybridize with other bears in certain regions (like the Asian black bear), they cannot interbreed with grizzly bears as they are not closely related.
American black bear range varies in size depending on climate. Black bears usually spend most of their time in dense forests along rivers, streams, and lakes where they are comfortable hiding their scent and feeding on a wide variety of foods. In colder regions black bear behavior changes to an almost nocturnal existence.
They feed at night while resting in caves or other denning areas during daylight hours. In the Appalachian Mountains, they migrate to higher elevations during winter and lower elevations during the summer months when preferred foods are available. Black bears are also very territorial in their home ranges but can be fairly tolerant of other bears living nearby (if not overly aggressive).
Young black bears are sometimes killed by coyotes, bobcats, eagles, and mountain lions. Adult black bears may be killed by larger black bears or brown bears. Black bear cubs are also vulnerable to starvation when their mothers are killed.
There are no subspecies of American black bears. However, in Alaska where there is a large population of brown bears (giant omnivores) and Asian black bears (tiny omnivores) interbreeding has been seen in the wild. In captivity, these three types have been known to breed for several generations creating a new species: the Kermode or spirit bear that is found only in British Columbia.
Black bears are smaller than brown bears but larger than Asian black bears. The giant Kodiak brown bear and the East Siberian brown bear (the largest subspecies of brown bear) are about twice as large as a typical American black bear, but not much heavier.
The smallest bears are the sun bear and Andean or spectacled bears from South America, although these two species may be closer in size to the Asian black bear. Some consider these two species to be sub-species of the American black bear.
Range and Preferred Habitat
They are found mainly throughout Canada, Mexico, and the United States except for a few locations in the desert southwest (U.S.). From 1895 to 2017 there have been 401 confirmed attacks on humans.
In Canada, American black bears inhabit most of Alberta, all but southern British Columbia and Saskatchewan, and all of Manitoba with exception of southern parts in midwest and northern Ontario, northern Quebec, and Labrador as well as Newfoundland where they are considered extirpated.
In Mexico, they are found throughout much of the northern states including Baja California Sur, Sonora, and Chihuahua.
In the continental United States, American black bears are found in most of Alaska (except for the southeastern corner near the Pacific Ocean) and all but northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, extreme northwest New York, and adjacent portions of Canada, northern Idaho (Coeur d’Alene), western Montana (Belgrade Lakes area), western Wyoming (Teton Valley and Jackson Hole area), northeastern California (Sierra Nevada Foothill Zone and Northern Coast Ranges) including coast range valleys from Oxnard to San Francisco Bay excluding the Central Valley and Southern California.
American black bears are omnivores and feed on a wide variety of plants, insects, fruits, nuts, and carrion. They may also eat fish and small animals including birds and deer. They normally forage for food at night in the woods or by day in fields and along forest edges. This can range from as little as an hour or two per day to periods lasting from several days to months. Foraging areas include forest openings, clearings in forests, swamps, meadows, riparian areas (streamsides), agricultural fields (often plowed), parks, and gardens.
Diet can vary between regions on the availability of natural foods such as berries or seeds in the fall to winter. Animals such as ants, grubs, or salamanders are eaten when insects or other animal prey is scarce. Black bears can be opportunistic feeders and their diets vary greatly depending on the season.
During certain seasons they may eat a great deal of fruit or insects. For example, in Yosemite National Park black bears consume vast amounts of acorns during fall each year. In the spring black bears may gorge on grasshoppers and beetles.
Black bear scat is often an oval-shaped pile with a length: width ratio between 1:1 to 2:1 and is sometimes rather thick and lumpy in appearance.
Mating and Reproduction
American black bears engage in the mating season in spring and the young are born in late spring to early summer. Females usually have one litter every 2-3 years, averaging 2-5 cubs that are born after a gestation of 4 ½ – 5 months. Females nurse their offspring for up to 6 months when they leave their mothers and begin independent behavior.
The young bear family then separates from their mothers and female cubs disperse in search of new mates. Female bears may typically go for one or two years without a mate, sometimes living solitary lives for up to 4 years before finding a mate again.
Juvenile females tend to leave their mothers earlier than juvenile males, probably due in part to the fact that they mature at a faster rate. If a mother bear is injured or dies, her cubs may not get an opportunity to learn many of the skills necessary for survival and so juvenile bears must be able to survive on their right out of the den.
American black bears are typical mammals in that they follow a diurnal cycle and are active during daylight hours, but usually not at high noon. However, in areas where human pressure is high (especially at parks and tourist attractions), they often acclimate to humans and behave more nocturnally. This means that during the year we may visit Glacier National Park to view its animal inhabitants at different times of the day.
The heaviest traffic is usually in the morning with its first visitors going as early as 5:30 am and its last visitors leaving by 11 am. Afternoons during the summer season are considerably lighter but still, some people can be seen enjoying themselves through a full afternoon. Evenings at Glacier National Park are considerably quieter as visitors begin to disperse after 4 pm, with the heaviest traffic leaving by 7-8 pm.
American black bears exhibit delayed implantation. The developing embryo remains in a state of suspended development for 10 months after fertilization and does not implant into the uterus wall until November or December. This allows mothers to synchronize birth with favorable environmental conditions and increases the chances that cubs will successfully reach independence before winter.
Eating and Hiding Behavior
Black bears are omnivores and eat many different types of plants, insects, nuts, berries, and grasses. They especially like acorns and are responsible for distributing oak trees throughout their habitat. Black bears have keen senses of hearing, smell, and touch that help them locate food. They also have a well-developed sense of taste that helps them identify plants with the highest moisture content for foraging in the dry seasons.
Their sense of touch is especially useful when seeking grubs under tree bark. To uncover insects beneath rocks or logs, black bears stand on their hind legs with their paws elevated as if on tip-toe to get a better look at their surroundings from a higher angle. This pose is called “pruning” and it is also often associated with bears sniffing the wind for potential threats or food.
While foraging in this way, black bears also spread their anal and genital areas to maximize odor absorption. Black bears will also rub their muzzles, backs, and flanks against trees and shrubs to mark their territory, remove dead hair, or possibly even deposit pheromones in an attempt to attract mates.
When black bears enter the den in winter they tend to rise on their legs or front paws just before going into deep hibernation.
Black Bear populations are generally sedentary and they may live in the same area all their lives. However, they will move some distances to find food or mates. They hibernate during winter, but females with young cubs (kits) may remain active around denning areas and can be seen foraging for food during mid-winter if the snow is light enough. The winter range of American black bears tends to be influenced by available food and/or habitat characteristics that depend on elevation as well as the distance from roads and human development in adjacent valleys.
American black bear habitat is fragmented and fragmented foraging areas make the black bear home range size dependent on distance from roads and human development in adjacent valleys. Denning areas are located at least above the tree line for most of their range, however, denning activity has been observed at elevations as low as.
Black bears have a very large home range (they are very social and territory can be up to 5 miles²). They hunt individually or in small groups to avoid competition while feeding or mating but they may live together during denning periods.
Florida Black Bears
American Black Bears are one of the most threatened species in North America and their numbers continue to decline. As people continue to encroach on their habitat, human-black bear conflicts can be expected to increase. The Florida Black Bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) is a subspecies of the American Black Bear that lives in coastal areas along the Atlantic Ocean from New Jersey to Florida.
In southern states, they are known as “Cub Bears,” while further north they are called “Grizzlies” or “Grizzly Bear”. These bears live in large families. They can reach around 200 pounds at maturity and have a lifespan of 12-14 years. Their fur color is typically dark brown with white patches covering their chest and head. Adult females weigh up to 300 lbs., whereas adult males usually weigh between 150-190 lbs.
The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is the largest land carnivore. They are brownish-black in color with a long tail, short legs, big ears, and a rounded head with large eyes. Their diet consists mainly of meat. Grizzlies have been known to eat salmon, grasshoppers, mice, berries, insects, roots, birds, eggs, fish, amphibians, and other mammals. Male grizzlies weigh around 400 pounds and females are typically about 200 pounds. Females usually give birth twice per year, while males typically give birth once per year. Female bears can live anywhere from 20 to 30 years, while males only live between 10-15 years.
1. Bear Cub
Bear cubs often remain near their mother’s den until they are old enough to leave home. After leaving the den, young bears learn how to hunt and find food. At this point, they are called bear cubs (Ursi darwinii). A bear cub’s fur is dark gray or black, except for its face, belly, paws, and ears which may be white. Cubs tend to stay away from people and prefer to go into dense forests where there is good hunting.
2. Male Bear
Male bears have manes on their heads, which develop hair in summer and fall. Males begin to grow these thick hairs at approximately age three. In some areas, male bears fight each other for mating rights. They need to establish dominance over their territory before engaging in sexual activity.
If two male bears meet up, they may wrestle each other to determine who is stronger. This occurs because males are larger than females and are therefore able to overpower them. Mating takes place in September and October. Most male bears mate with multiple females but not always. Some do not even attempt to mate because they feel their chances of success aren’t high. Others are simply too busy eating and playing to get around to mating.
3. Female Bear
Female bears can give birth between May and June, although it has been reported that some females give birth in late fall. They typically bear a single cub and can produce two litters per year. Cubs weigh about 15 pounds at birth and grow to nearly 100 lbs by adulthood. Males reach sexual maturity around 5 years old. Females reach sexual maturity around 4-5 years old.
The Spirit Bear
The smallest North American Bear is the Spirit Bear. They are not actually Bears but they are Ursidae. There are only two types. A brown bear and a black bear. Both have a dark brown coat with white patches on the face, ears, and paws. There are no other differences between them.
They are solitary animals meaning they have a habit of spending long hours alone in caves or high-up locations. The small size of the animal makes it vulnerable and easy prey to on predators. Like all bear species, the Spirit Bears are omnivorous. They eat insects, berries, roots, and nuts.
What are American Black Bears Known For
Although black bears are generally shy, curious, and mostly nocturnal, they have adapted to human population pressure in the lower 48 states. American black bears are frequently seen in urban areas where they sometimes become bold enough to break into homes for food or scrap.
They have also been known to enter homes, feed on stored food, and leave yards and sheds damaged by their actions. They are especially attracted to bird seeds, sunflower seeds, and pet food, even if people do not place these items outside their residences.
American black bears are considered an essential part of a healthy ecosystem because their diet includes many types of forage that help to diversify plant communities and provide optimal conditions for other species. Their large size also helps to keep down the population of rabbits and other prey species which can over-groom habitat and destroy vegetation by over browsing. Black bears also serve as a nutritional resource for many species including other bears, wolves, foxes, deer, and birds such as grouse.
Are American Black Bears Friendly
American black bears are generally shy animals and retreat from humans. However, they have adapted to human population pressure by becoming more nocturnal and are often bold during daylight hours in the presence of people. This is especially true in more developed areas where people feed them or have fed them in the past.
In the lower 48 states, most bear attacks occur from July through early October and typically involve a mother defending her young from an intruder or a bear seeking food. In most cases when a black bear attacks, it will use its claws and teeth to inflict multiple scratches on an intruder but typically does not inflict deep wounds that result in blood loss or death (especially with humans).
This is often accompanied by loud vocalization by both bears and humans. Black bears can be very aggressive when injured or defending their young but they generally do not seek confrontation with a human intruder into their territory.
Black bear attacks are extremely rare in Alaska where brown bears are the largest native predator and black bears are much smaller. There have also been very few attacks on humans in Canada, Russia, Japan, and other countries where American black bears coexist with brown bears regardless of size.
What Do You Do if You See an American Black Bear
If you encounter a black bear:
Close doors and windows, secure your valuables and lock them in a room.
Act quickly and defer to the directions of authority such as the county sheriff or game warden.
Make noise (clap your hands, shout, throw something at it) to startle it and make it leave.
If this doesn’t work, raise your arms above your head in a vertical position to look bigger and make noise (this is referred to as “jacking up” for safety reasons). This usually feels unnatural at first but makes you seem larger as well.
If the bear does not leave, back up slowly out of its way.
Please note that “Bear Spray” is recommended if you are in a developed area where there are other people as it can be used for defense. Bear spray is intended to be used in close quarters (up to 30 feet) and direct contact should be avoided.
If an attack is imminent or begins you are recommended by some authorities (such as the National Park Service) to fall to the ground and curl into a ball with your hands over your head or face. In this position, while unlikely, you have a better chance of surviving by reducing your profile and preventing the bear from biting or clawing at your head.
The American black bear is listed as a threatened species in many areas of the lower 48 states. In the lower 48 states, black bear populations have been declining about 10% per year for over 25 years and are now listed as endangered in New England.
Some scientists believe that this trend is related to loss of habitat from human activity and disease carried by black bears with others proposing that they are negatively affected by habitat fragmentation (loss of large, contiguous tracts of undisturbed habitat).
American Black Bears are one of the most threatened species in North America and their numbers continue to decline. As people continue to encroach on their habitat, human-black bear conflicts can be expected to increase.
While black bears are not typically aggressive, if a black bear becomes aggressive, you should assume that public safety is of the highest concern first before human safety.