MONTAGUE — It’s a common misconception that you’ll only encounter a black bear in the forest.
Black bears are also commonly seen in residential areas, sifting through trash barrels and bird feeders looking for food, according to MassWildlife Connecticut Valley District Supervisor Ralph Taylor.
Keeping them out of your yard can be as easy as foregoing the bird feeders for the winter, Taylor advised during a Saturday afternoon presentation at the Great Falls Discovery Center.
“I think most people are interested in feeding birds and seeing birds, but in my opinion — and most biologists’ opinion — birds don’t need to be fed,” he said. “If you’ve entrained them here already, you’ve got to continue to feed them throughout the winter because they are depending on that food. If you don’t start it at the beginning of the winter, these birds will move to areas where they can find natural foods.”
He said a bear’s greatest attribute is its sense of smell, which makes them very good hunters and gatherers, but often leads them to areas that aren’t bear-friendly, such as neighborhoods. Even though it’s difficult to keep a bear away from a home, he said feeding pets indoors, hanging bird feeders on a wire and cleaning up under your feeders or fruit trees will reduce backyard bear sightings.
“They will come for the drops all the time,” he said. “They can smell from a really long way away and I really recommend that you put your garbage cans out right before pickup time and not the night before, because you’ll find that your trash cans will be torn apart by the bears.”
Taylor said neighborhood bear sightings can be reduced if people stop hanging bird feeders and instead grow native plants, shrubs and trees to continue attracting birds to their land. This alternative method might decrease bird diversity, but will curb unwanted wildlife visits.
Taylor said Massachusetts is home to more than 4,500 black bears and though they aren’t endangered per se, they are still vulnerable, especially cubs, which have a 60 percent mortality rate, mostly due to roadway killings. He said 91 percent of male cubs and 30 percent of female cubs don’t make it to the next year.
“We have them crossing the highways all the time and it seems like young males are more precocious and want to be off on their own exploring and the females stay closer to mom,” he said, adding that the males are the last the cross the road are typically hit by vehicles because the drivers see a few of the cubs following mom and don’t anticipate another young cub slowly following behind.
Taylor said bears who live past their first year encounter other threats including farmers and landowners, who have a right to protect their property and can kill a bear if it’s damaging the land in some way, adding that the average lifespan for a black bear is about 7 to 8 years old. He has encountered a 29-year-old bear before, but said it’s very rare for them to live that long. He recommends homeowners install an electric fence around their property to ensure that bears won’t come near valuable land such as corn fields.
Right before the hour-long presentation ended, Taylor reassured the audience of about 40 people that black bear attacks are very uncommon and usually charge at humans when they or their young feel threatened in their natural habitat and advises hikers and campers to purchase bear repellent and follow the bear encounter precautions listed on the state wildlife website at: usa.gov/1SEiQtk.
“Adversion techniques include rubber bullets, dogs, of course, and noisemakers are helpful in some instances if the bear has never heard people,” he said. “If the bear has heard people before, they just look at you like, ‘What are you doing? I know you are not going to hurt me.’”