Black Bear Biology & Behavior

Black Bear Behavior

Black Bear in tree Photo

Black bear image from Bear Smart Durango

Bears may forage up to 20 hours a day during autumn, increasing their body weight by 35% in preparation for winter. During this time they enter ‘hyperphagia’, which literally means “excessive eating.”

Black bears move in response to the seasonal availability of food and have excellent memories, particularly regarding food sources. Bears are able to learn about food types and locations, and reapply that knowledge over time and space – a sure sign of intelligence.

Black bears can run 30 to 35 mph and, contrary to some myths, can easily run up and down hill.

Black bears have good eyesight, but don’t discern the yellow-red-orange color spectrum as well as humans. They also have exceptional hearing. Their sense of smell is unparalleled – more than seven times greater than a dog, particularly for food-related scents. Black bear habitat is primarily forests, forest edges and forest clearings.  Reflecting this, their shorter curved and sharp claws evolved for climbing trees which they do to escape  predators, find food, sleep and rest.  They also are excellent for shredding and taking apart decaying snags and downed logs in order to reach insects, insect colonies and even amphibians and small mammals which live and find refuge in decaying wood.  In contrast, grizzly bear claws are much longer, more blunt and are used primarily for excavating food from their preferred open country and high mountain meadow habitats. Grizzly bears, although not adapted primarily for tree-climbing, can still climb any tree you can climb!

Black Bear Reproduction and Maturation

Black bear females do not reproduce until they are three to five years old but some may be as old as seven when they first produce young. Females normally breed every other year and have an average of two cubs, but can have one to five. Cub mortality is high, with an average of 50 percent dying in their first year due to natural causes. The female has 6 nipples, but often only two primary teats produce milk that is exceptionally high in fat, hence the cubs’ rapid growth.

Black Bear Cubs

Black bear cubs. Photo by Rich Beausoleil WDFW

Females conceive during the summer (mid June to July in Washington) and overall gestation time is 7 to 7 1/2  months. However, impregnated females go through a process called delayed implantation so actual embryo development does not begin until November or December.  Cubs are born two months later, in January or February weighing just  225 to 330 grams (1/2 to 3/4 pounds) and measuring about 8 inches long. The cubs are blind and deaf, have poorly developed hindquarters, and are covered with fine down-like hair. They suckle frequently from the female in the den and emerge with her in the spring. They remain with the female for 16 to 18 months during which time she teaches them everything they need to know to survive.

Female black bears do not mate while rearing young, so may only produce six litters in her lifetime.

The average lifespan of a black bear can be up to 18 years, and the oldest documented wild bear lived to 31. During their lives black bears can suffer from arthritis, cavities, fractures from falls, broken and worn teeth, bites from other animals and gun shots.

Black Bear Diet

Black bears are in the taxonomic Order Carnivora, but their diet is omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Approximately eighty to eight-five percent of a black bear’s typical diet is plant material, while the remaining 15% is made up of animal protein. Black bears will eat almost anything, such as grubs from a bumblebee nest, bird eggs, ants, voles, grasses and berries.

Black bears are also opportunistic, meaning they take advantage of whatever is available.  They will occasionally eat carrion when available and will hunt and kill their own prey including calves of elk, moose and deer. They also scavenge meat from winter-killed animals, dig for rodents, and eat termites, ants, grubs and other insects.

A bear’s diet changes seasonally. In spring, bears eat the tender emerging shoots of sedges, grasses, cow parsnip, leaf buds and skunk cabbage. Although their diet is omnivorous and their digestive system is much more robust than ours, bears still have the digestive system of a carnivore so cannot digest firm plant cellulose well. They target many plants in the spring when young shoots are most digestible and nutritious.

Bear eating berries. Photo courtesy of Bear Smart Durango

Cinnamon black bear eating grass. Photo by Ron Coscorrosa


Black bears will sometimes scrape off with their incisors the sugar-rich cambium layer after having pulled the bark from coniferous trees, and can kill the tree in the process. During summer months bears begin to re-focus their attention on massive quantities of maturing berries, and spawning salmon when available – items essential to their diet as the bears begin to prepare for winter sleep. In the fall, in some parts of the black bear range, nuts become another important part of a bear’s diet. Acorns, white bark pine nuts, and hickory nuts are a few favorites in appropriate habitat. Black bears regularly raid the caches of squirrels to get to the conifer seeds and nuts they have stored for the winter. In the West, salmon, whenever available, represent an important food source for black bears.

Salmon berry. Photo by Ron Coscorrosa

Bear scat. Photo by Rich Beausoleil WDF


Black Bear Habitat and Territory

The home range of a female black bear is typically 2.5 to 10 square miles (6.4-25.9 square kilometers). Male black bears range over much larger areas and  home ranges are 10 to 59 square miles (26-152 square kilometers). Female black bears generally will not share their territory with other females, but the ranges of several males may overlap with hers.

Black Bear Dens and Hibernation

Black Bear Den

Black Bear Den. Photo by Rich Beausoleil WDFW

Do black bears hibernate? The short answer is yes. Although there has been past scientific debate about whether or not one of the world’s most famous “hibernator” actually does so, black bears are able to survive severe weather and annual winter food shortages by denning and hibernating during those winter months.

While in hibernation, black bear heart rates typically drop very substantially from 40 – 50 beats per minute down to 8 beats per minute, and there are other beneficial physiological changes which help them maintain this prolonged state of torpor, but their body temperatures do not drop significantly. Unlike other hibernators, black bears are dormant, but don’t need to wait to bring up body temperatures – and thus can awaken and arouse quickly. This condition allows bears to defend themselves and their cubs more effectively should an outside predator disturb them in the den.

Bears hibernate for varying lengths of time depending on where they live and will even occasionally emerge from their dens for a period during the winter. In warmer climates a bear might spend just a few weeks denning, or sometimes not den at all. In Washington and Idaho, black bears den for an average of around 5 months each winter.

Black bears most often choose to den under large boulders, simple depressions under brush, in tree cavities above ground or at the base of a tree, under logs, or even buildings. Compared to grizzly bears, black bears tend to den at lower elevations and in less steep areas than their grizzly bear cousins.

Bears burn fat while in the den and produce usable by-products such as water. The kidneys release less waste than during active times of the year, and the small amount that is created is reabsorbed through the bladder wall. The urine is essentially recycled internally and then is converted to carbon dioxide, water and ammonia. Bears do not defecate while in hibernation.

Black Bear Communication

Black bears emit a variety of vocalizations to communicate with other bears and other species. Along with vocalizations, bears use posturing to communicate dominance or subordination, and to express attitudes. Visit the North American Bear Center to read descriptions of black bear cub vocalizations to their mothers and to listen to audio files of black bear vocalizations.

In order to establish dominance, male black bears will often claw trees, with the highest marks on the tree associated with the most dominant male.

Two often-misinterpreted forms of black bear communication that can put a hiker on edge are bluff charges and a bear standing upright on its hind legs. Bluff charges are far more common than actual attacks, and are used to scare off a potential threat. They are generally broken off a few feet away, sometimes accompanied by stamping on the ground. A bear standing on its hind legs is simply trying to get a better look with its mediocre vision.

Ecological Roles of Black Bears

Black bears play an important role in forest ecosystems as seed dispersers and nutrient providers. Berry seeds pass through the bear unbroken and are able to germinate. Not only that, but the seeds come with their own pile of fresh manure as fertilizer!

Black bears also break up downed logs in their search for grubs, helping the process of decay in the forest and the return of nutrients to the soil.

Threats to Black Bears

Black Bear Threats

American black bears adapt well to human development, and their global population is estimated to be twice that of all other species of bears combined.  The population of adult black bears in Washington State is estimated to be about 17,000, and they are found in nearly every county in the state.  They are considered “game” animals and harvest numbers can reach over 2,000 per year.

While the overall population is strong and not threatened at this time, individual bears often come into conflict with humans.  Because of their adaptability, they can live in close proximity to human development.  Particularly in years when the local berry crop fails, they will frequent municipal garbage dumps and household garbage cans looking for food.  Once they become overly habituated or begin to be seen as a threat to people or pets, they can be relocated or even killed by the wildlife authorities.

As more housing developments and roads are built on the fringes of the urban areas in western Washington, black bears are losing habitat, and opportunities for them to pursue their natural food sources are becoming even more limited.  This is already resulting in increased interactions between black bears and humans.  As climate change shifts the distribution of their food sources, conflicts are likely to increase as they seek out new, suitable habitat.  A large network of interconnected, wild lands would reduce the risk of conflict.