American Black Bears

Natural History

Of the eight species of bears worldwide, three are found in the United States: polar bears, brown bears (including the grizzly) and black bears. Virginia only has black bears, the smallest of the three.

Bears are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, eating mostly plants in the spring, berries and insects in the summer, and nuts and berries in the fall. Carrion (dead animals) is often part of a bear’s diet. Although not typically an active predator, rare occurrences of livestock predation are reported each year. A common misconception about bears is that they are mean. Most attacks by black bears are defensive reactions to a person who is too close, which is an easy situation to avoid. Injuries from these defensive reactions are usually minor. Bears can look like they are stalking when they are actually approaching out of simple curiosity; this curiosity stems from their high intellect. When black bears were given the mirror test, they were able to realize that their reflection was not another bear, and exhibited none of the tense signals of meeting a strange bear. In fact, most ignored the mirror!

Black bears use a variety of sounds, body language, and scent-marking to express their emotions. Amiable sounds such as grunts and tongue clicks are used by mothers concerned for their cubs and by bears approaching other bears to mate or play. Cubs make a motor-like pulsing hum when they nurse or are especially comfortable. Apprehensive expressions are forceful expulsions of air accompanied by threatening body language and sometimes deeper throaty sounds, such as blowing and clacking their teeth when they are afraid. Pulsing threatening sounds, cries of distress, and moan-like sounds can all be made by bears in a state of anxiety.

Each year, the free-ranging areas that black bears have historically enjoyed are shrinking due to logging, residential growth, and pollution, which increases their contact with humans. Consequently, each year more and more black bears are becoming “trouble bears,” going through residential trash cans. Many others die in auto accidents and relocation incidents. However, black bears have shown themselves to be very adaptable and capable of living in human-altered areas, more so than any other bear species on Earth, and have responded well to conservation efforts. While many other bear species are in decline worldwide, black bear population numbers are relatively stable. Conservation work has been a success!

Maymont has two black bears in the quarry habitat between Raptor Valley and the Japanese Garden. The smaller bear, born in 2005, came to Maymont in 2006 after being found by the Virginia Game Department in Roanoke. He was brought here because he was undernourished and would not have survived on his own. The larger bear, also born in 2005, came to Maymont from the Virginia Game Department in Madison County,  who had tried to relocate him several times after he began growing accustomed to people and intruding on campsites and house trailers.

Fun Facts

  • Bears don’t hibernate! They are not true hibernators like woodchucks or chipmunks. Instead, they enter into a state of torpor. Bears reduce their body temperature only about seven degrees Celsius, at most, staying much warmer than their surroundings.
  • Over 90% of a bear’s diet is vegetation.
  • Two cubs are usually born during the winter. These cubs have blue eyes at birth, and long claws for crawling up to nurse on their mother.
  • Not all black bears are black. Their coats can vary from dark black, brown, and cinnamon to blond, blue-gray, or white.
  • Bears are known as pacers, and when walking, they pick up both the front and back foot on the same side of the body at the same time. Their walk is clumsy but its bounding trot can reach bursts of speed up to 30 mph.  

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