Rise and shine

By Posted on Mar 30 2019 | By

Black bears poised to leave dens

One of the delights of living in the Piedmont is the seemingly endless vistas we encounter as we motor around our countryside. But our verdant landscape is home to not only natural beauty but a host of wildlife.

Chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, beaver, raccoon, skunk, fox, bobcat, coyote and more call our home their home. Oh, and of course, black bear.

Black bears have made a remarkable recovery in Virginia since the early 1900s when they were largely hunted out. Today it’s estimated some 17,000 of them roam almost all of the Old Dominion.

The state’s western mountains have the highest concentration with the Shenandoah National Park home to about 500. Bears can live up to 30 years in the wild and even longer in captivity.

For newcomers, the reaction of hearing or seeing sightings of Ursus americanus, especially around homes and subdivisions is, “Oh, my. That’s scary.” With a large boar weighing in at 400 pounds it’s an understandable reaction.

But rest easy. The black bear is one of the most intelligent, shy and gentle of mammals. Attacks on humans are extremely rare. Its full-time job is filling its belly. If you really don’t one to encounter one, don’t leave a menu lying around.

But if they find out you’ve opened a local “restaurant”, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be treated to repeated visits. They are omnivores and opportunistic feeders. Up to 75 percent of their diet is consists of berries, flowers, acorns and other plants. But they will eat meat, including insects, roadkill and garbage.

Commercial farm crops like corn, apples, and peaches are also on its menu. Increasingly winery owners are encountering bear depredation. An entire vineyard can go down in a couple of nights as a bear vacuum cleans its way through chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and other grapes. An unsettling thought for wine lovers.

During the lead-up to winter denning, they may forage for food 20 hours a day. Guess what happens when they stumble upon a birdfeeder or unprotected garbage can?

Life cycle
The cycle begins in June and July when males and females “hookup” for a three or four-day lovefest. Within days a repeat encounter with a new mate starts the lovemaking all over again.

These guys want to make sure they are propagating the species properly. They then part ways until the party starts over again the following year.

The animals also sport a characteristic called “multiple paternity”. For example, a sow’s three cubs may well have three different dads. An even more interesting trait is females are “delayed implanters”.

To assure that an impregnated mother does not have to forage to support both herself and up to four fetuses the fertilized egg is held in what might be called suspended animation while she puts on weight to survive the winter hibernation.

Once tucked comfortably in a den of a hollowed-out tree or dense thicket of vegetation, the egg implants in the uterus and the wee ones begin to grow.

As solar energy increases in the spring males are the first to stir beginning in mid-March followed by the females in early to mid-April. Mom has to assure herself her young family is capable of moving about the forest learning the rudiments of its lifelong food search before she leaves the den.

For those living in bear country, a good rule of thumb is to be alert to bear depredation beginning around April Fool’s Day. But this time it’s no joke with what you may encounter.

The cubs will again den with the mom the following fall and be urged to make their way in the world the following May when the cycle repeats itself.

Protective measures
While its obvious removing potential food sources is the best way to stop bear encounters it nonetheless can be difficult for bird and squirrel lovers to forgo putting feeders out. Resist the temptation. Feeders equal bears.

The fastest way to discourage the furry predators is to remove all temptation.

Here’s some state recommended preventive actions:

  • Secure your garbage in bear-resistant trash cans or store it in a secure building.
  • Keep your grill clean.
  • Remove bird feeders if a bear is in the area.
  • Don’t put meat scraps in your compost pile.
  • Don’t leave pet food outdoors.
  • Make sure your neighbors are following the same recommendations

But what to do if a bear still shows up looking hungry and casing your home? Listen to a few proven strategies for scaring them away from expert Fred Frenzel.

Frenzel is a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in Edinburg. Fauquier County is part of his service turf.

“One of the best tools to use is a small marine air compressed horn. They are really super loud. And you don’t even have to go outside. Just open a window or door and let it go,” said Frenzel. A small horn capable of numerous blasts cost about $20.

Another clever scare’m tactic is to click your vehicle door opener fob’s red button to let loose a honking-flashing light show. “It’s very effective. It happens so quick and they never see a human so it scares the daylights out of them, he said.

If caught short, however, a large spoon banging against a pot may work. And tossing stones at the brute is also likely to make it scatter. What you do not want to do is get close enough to expose yourself to danger.

While attacks are rare a bear can run up to 30 miles per hour. Trying to flee would be a lost cause if one decided to launch a rare attack.

Frenzel shares that a robust hunting season extending from September through mid- January keeps the bear population in check. Hunting seasons vary by county and weapon which include bow, muzzleloaders, and guns. During the 2018-2019 hunting season, 2,715 bears were harvested.

Asked what bear meat tastes like, Frenzel said, “It’s stringy and tastes somewhat like roast beef. It’s gamier than venison.”

For a fascinating education in all things black bear visit Virginia’s Department of Game & Inland Fisheries at 


Published in the March 27, 2019 edition of the Fauquier Times.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES