The Gifts of May

Spring is my favorite season and May my favorite month. To me, beginnings are always more thrilling than endings and comings more wonderful than goings as I experience all the excitement of new and resurrecting life—the returning of birds, the blooming of wildflowers, trees and shrubs, and the newborn fawns, bear cubs, and other mammals.

A scarlet tanager in Chester County, PA, on May 14, 2014 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A scarlet tanager in Chester County, PA, on May 14, 2014 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

May gives me these and other gifts every spring when I welcome back scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, Acadian flycatchers, worm-eating warblers and all the other part-time bird residents of our Appalachian forest as they return from incredible journeys to once again court, mate and raise their families.

My May journal is filled with bird sightings and songs. Most are expected, old friends. Others are less familiar or less common on our property and are passing though in search of their particular habitat, for instance, the yellow warbler last May 24, which likes early successional lowland habitat and was singing in our remaining elm tree beside our access road.

A northern harrier hovering over potential prey (Photo by Don on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A northern harrier hovering over potential prey (Photo by Don on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Another surprise, two days later, was a female northern harrier that coursed low over our overgrown First Field, occasionally dropping into the grasses but coming up empty. Once an American crow flew at her when she was on the ground but was quickly routed. It was a treat to watch as she dipped and swayed over the field, her white searchlight bright above her tail, which flared to expose its black and white stripes.

As I walked down the driveway for a closer look, she easily maneuvered through the black locust trees along Butterfly Loop, 50 feet or so above the ground, before disappearing from view. Sometimes I see northern harriers here in fall or winter, but never in spring because, as a denizen of large, open fields, she, like the yellow warbler, breeds in the nearby valleys and was only a visitor.

A rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by John Harrison in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by John Harrison in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still another bird species, the lovely white-crowned sparrow, visits us and appears in the spring only when our dandelions go to seed, even though its habitat—brush, forest edges, and thickets—is plentiful here. On May 3, I was treated to the sight of a pair of white-crowned sparrows hanging out in our backyard with two gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeaks and the sparrow-like brown and white of a female grosbeak. Although the grosbeaks breed on our mountain, they are rarely seen. It was a special gift of May for me to see two such striking birds together.

Then there is the inevitable mystery bird. Late on a lovely May 20th afternoon, I sat on our veranda, binoculars in hand. I heard what sounded like a partial Baltimore oriole song and found the singer up in a black walnut tree. It looked like an oriole and was yellow with white wing bars and a black face and neck. It turned out to be a first year male orchard oriole. I had been puzzled because I had only seen the adult male orchard oriole here a couple times in 45 years and they have dark chestnut rumps and breasts and black heads, necks, backs, and tails.

An orchard oriole in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An orchard oriole in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But a quick look at the oriole pages in my Peterson field guide and I had identified the mystery bird. It too had strayed from its usual valley habitat of floodplains, marshes, the shorelines of large rivers and scattered trees, or along streams as well as open farmland.

According to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, although orchard orioles only spend three months of the year here, they are continuing a remarkable northward expansion in the commonwealth along river valleys and now are found in varying numbers nearly statewide. But in our county—Blair—they were only noted in small numbers in the farm valleys.

A sharp-shinned hawk with prey under foot (Photo by Abdoozy on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A sharp-shinned hawk with prey under foot (Photo by Abdoozy on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Personalities of birds vary widely as I discovered last May. As I approached the back of the spruce grove on May 23, a sharp-shinned hawk sitting in a black locust tree near the grove began calling loudly and then flew low and directly toward my head, veering off at the last minute and then landing on a nearby branch.

The following day it was even more aggressive, diving at me a couple times when I tried to enter Sapsucker Ridge Trail near the grove. For five years sharpies had raised young in our spruce grove and never were aggressive even when I walked through the grove. Usually, one parent or the other would be sitting and watching on a locust tree, and when I approached would call quietly as a warning to the other parent on the nest.

Then there had been a year without sharpies nesting in the grove. This aggressive one could have been an offspring because those sharpies always were successful raising a family as I discovered every August when their fledged young screamed for food from the tops of the spruces for a week or so before flying off to catch food on their own. Surprisingly, despite the aggression of this new sharpie, I heard no such proof of nesting success last August.

A black bear at a pond in West Virginia, April 21, 2010 (Photo by ForestWander in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A black bear at a pond in West Virginia, April 21, 2010 (Photo by ForestWander in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still, because of that “crazy” sharpie, I walked off-trail through the woods to avoid the bird instead of taking my usual trail near the back of the grove to the vernal pond. As I approached the pond, I spotted a black bear walking slowly away from me, his butt still wet from his wallow in the water.

I froze and watched as he shook himself like a dog and then meandered slowly to a patch of evergreen wood ferns where he nosed around for a few minutes. Next he plodded to a nearby tree and stretched up to rub his back and scent over its trunk.

Suddenly, he turned and peered in my direction. I remained still and quiet, and he turned away and continued his slow walk until he was out of sight.

Once he was gone, I was able to track his wet steps out of the pond and over to the fern patch. I never did figure out what he was looking for. I had assumed food, but perhaps he had scented a male rival or a possible female mate, hence his back-rubbing. I only wished that I had arrived a little sooner and seen him paddling in the pond. Nevertheless, it is always a thrill to watch a bear that isn’t aware of my presence and going about his bear business.

Wood frog tadpoles (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Wood frog tadpoles (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I had gone, as I do most spring days, to the vernal pond to keep track of the wood frogs. As I had written in my March column, last spring all had gone exceptionally well for the wood frogs. But in April the expected rains didn’t come. Day by day, I watched as the pond slowly dried up. But the end of April I found only a few tiny puddles and a few wood frog tadpoles fighting for life. Once again the wood frogs had lost their gamble—or so I thought.

Then came the rains of early May. On the twelfth, it finally cleared by mid-afternoon, and I took my usual walk up First Field Trail where a ruffed grouse performed her broken wing act, on to the Far Field Road and Coyote Bench, where I was serenaded by red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers and American redstarts, and over to the vernal pond area to see if it had refilled. But first I paused to admire the spreading patch of still-blooming spring beauties near the pond.

With a heavy heart, I approached the vernal pond and blinked. It was seething with wood frog tadpoles, a veritable tadpole soup. How was it possible?

I contacted Dr. Jim Julian, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona. He specializes in herpetology and years ago gave my husband Bruce and me a tour of the vernal ponds at the Scotia game lands (SGL#176). He told me that he had “seen wood frog tadpoles survive in really wet/soupy mud for a couple days. While they use their gills to get oxygen from the water, they’re using their skin for respiration also, [which] is probably why they can live for a while after the ponds dry.”

So, mystery solved, but still such a recovery seemed almost miraculous to me and still another priceless gift from last May.


Living with Bears Redux

Most summer evenings after the heat of the day has faded, I walk Butterfly Loop. This trail encircles a portion of our 37-acre meadow we call First Field.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Often I’m treated to a stunning sunset, and always I hear and see songbirds that prefer a meadow of forbs or the edge of a wooded ridge.

Sometimes I glimpse a herd of deer before they see me and run off. Once I watched a raccoon set out for the evening along the edge of First Field, and several times I’ve encountered a porcupine grazing on the grasses.

On my July birthday last year I had made a note of the abundant ripe huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way near the Short Circuit Trail and had stood in the cool morning eating them by the handfuls.

That evening, on Butterfly Loop, I scanned the right-of-way with my binoculars. To my surprise, I spotted a large black bear doing exactly what I had done in the morning—picking and eating huckleberries.

A black bear eating huckleberries

A black bear eating huckleberries (Photo by Harvey Barrison in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

Although bears are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat almost anything, more than 80% of their diet is vegetable matter—grasses and weeds in the spring, wild berries in the summer and nut species in the fall. They are especially fond of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries.

On my birthday evening, I was pleased to see a bear without it seeing or scenting me and to watch it for half an hour as it moved methodically from patch to patch, peacefully harvesting huckleberries by using its paws to hold the bushes while it broke off berries with its teeth.

Sometimes I could see its face and what appeared to be a single silver disk in the middle of each ear, but I was too far away to tell if they were ear tags. Finally, it disappeared into the taller brush.

We’ve been living with bears for almost four decades, but that was one of the few times I had a chance to observe a bear without it detecting me. Often I’ve turned around on trails when I’ve seen a bear in the distance before it sees me or I step into the underbrush and wait for it to pass. But if it’s too close, I have to stand my ground.

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

For instance, late last May, as I ambled along Laurel Ridge Trail on my morning walk, a large black sow emerged from the right side of the forest at the top of a steep incline. I expected her to cross the trail, but instead, she turned and started toward me, followed by her yearling cub.

I froze in place and considered my options. She was less than 100 feet away and moving quickly so turning around didn’t seem like a good idea. Because nearly always, talking to wild animals scares them away, first I said quietly, “You don’t want to come this way.”

The bears paused and then haltingly continued moving forward. Next I clapped my hands, a maneuver I had never tried before, and immediately the sow turned and ran into the woods on the left side of the trail.

A bear mother with her yearling cub

A bear mother with her yearling cub (Photo by beingmyelf on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the cub still hesitated until I clapped my hands again. Then it ran after the sow, and I proceeded on my way, surprised to realize that after numerous peaceful encounters with bears, I didn’t even have an elevated heartbeat.

A week later on the first of June, my husband, Bruce, went for a walk in the foggy dawn and saw a bear on Laurel Ridge. During my walk, I found many fresh scratches on the Laurel Ridge power pole, reminding me of a time, many Junes ago, when I heard and then watched a boar raking a power pole with his claws and then turning and rubbing his back against it. This was another case where the bear didn’t see or scent me even though I was only 50 feet away from him.

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Researchers still aren’t certain why black bears do this, but tree or, in our case, pole-marking behavior does occur more often during the June breeding season. However, Bruce once watched a bear shredding a power pole near the Short Circuit Trail in August. And the power poles atop Sapsucker Ridge have even more claw marks, administered throughout the year, than those on Laurel Ridge. Because of this, I’m more inclined to consider them message poles that inform other bears of their size and presence.

Lynn Rogers, who has been studying black bears in Minnesota for decades, found that most of his radio-collared tree-markers were male bears. Right after they marked a tree, Rogers was able to smell their scent on the tree. Since bears have a much stronger sense of smell than we do, Rogers thought that bears could smell the trees long after they had been marked. Perhaps, he theorized, such trees may warn males that other males are near so they can avoid fights.

Bears mating

Bears mating (Photo by the North American Bear Center on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

There’s no doubt that male bears are excited during mating season. The only time I was chased by a bear was when a male apparently mistook me for a sow. I had been sitting quietly in First Field near some shrubs when I heard a bear and stood up. As I started walking around the shrubs, I realized the bear was close behind me. Again I turned around and spoke to him. He stopped short, wheeled around, and headed off to find a female of his own species.

By the time females are in estrous, they have chased off their yearlings. Two weeks after I encountered sow and cub, first Bruce saw a yearling streaking across Greenbrier Trail near its confluence with Bird Count Trail and later our son Dave saw what was probably the same yearling still running straight out, this time across Ten Springs Trail. Probably either the sow or her paramour were chasing her persistent cub away.

Female yearlings will stay in the sow’s territory, researchers have found, but male cubs have to leave the area and try to find a place that has no bears. Male territories are larger than those of females and usually include two or more females. Territory and range size vary depending on food sources.

Bears of both sexes have been known to wander off their ranges for miles in search of food, especially in autumn when the acorn and/or beechnut crops fail because they rely on the high fat content of those foods to put on weight before winter.

Last summer our berry crops were huge, especially blackberries, and we picked over 50 quarts. Our lowbush blueberry crop was poor; our huckleberry crop adequate. Later, the black cherry crop was also poor, the wild grape crop average, and the acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts scant.

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds (Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We didn’t have any other bear encounters, but I did find piles of bear scat filled with berry seeds and later with corn, presumably from the valley farms. Unlike bears in wilderness areas, our bears can depend on cultivated crops if the wild ones fail. Here in Pennsylvania, there are many sources of food from farms and forests—carrion from domestic as well as wild animals and fresh insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and even new born fawns.

As the years have passed, we’ve had our behavior shaped by bear appetites. When we heard a bear overturn the garbage can with what we thought was a tight lid to cover itself with sunflower seed, we put the bird feeder cans in our basement. When we were awakened another night by a bear emptying our washed recycled cans, also in clean garbage cans, we put them in the basement.

We bring in our bird feeders every night during November, most of December, March and early April and then retire them until the following fall. And since a sow with her cubs broke through our kitchen screen door two years ago and was climbing in when we sent her off one summer night, we close all doors and windows in our kitchen in the evening, no matter how stifling the weather.

But even that sacrifice is worth it to live with bears. Here is a video of a bear family filmed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Tracking Snow

Most Januarys it is cold and light snows fall which make ideal tracking weather. Only then do we discover, for instance, that we have fishers on our mountain property.

Last winter, in mid-January, it was a relatively balmy 16 degrees Fahrenheit, after days below zero or in the single digits, although three days before, it had warmed briefly to 34 degrees with a freezing rain, and then had quickly frozen over again. Still, I was tempted to walk along a pathless section of Laurel Ridge in search of tracks. Because of the threat of Lyme disease ticks in this brushy area during the warmer months, I only explore it when the temperature is well below 32 degrees.

Near the end of the ridgetop, I encountered a large area dug up, the leaf cover scattered in all directions. At first I thought it was the work of deer or turkeys during the brief thaw. A few hundred feet farther, I found a much larger area churned up and even spilling down the steep slope toward the farming valley below. In either place I couldn’t find any deer or turkey tracks.

Black bear footprint

Black bear footprint

Then, I was surprised to discover a perfect bear track frozen into the snow. The more I looked, the more tracks I saw coming and going from all directions. It looked as if more than one bear had been searching for acorns during the brief thaw. At least two sets of tracks emerged from a large thicket area on the slope below, and I wondered if they had come from a den in the heavy brush.

Here in Pennsylvania, brush dens are popular but so are dens in tree-root cavities, rocks, and even in hollow trees, or in or under piles of fallen logs. And despite the size of a bear its den can be surprisingly small. One study in Pennsylvania of a ground den found that it was only 22.4 inches deep, 38 inches wide, and its main entrance a mere 14.4 inches by 12 inches.

I continued my tracking on the ridgetop and found several more, smaller, disturbed patches. One had a few bear tracks filled with a dusting of snow. Another had fresh turkey tracks. Still another had bear tracks coming from across the ridgetop instead of up the slope. In the middle was a fresh pile of bear scat.

Wild turkey tracks

Wild turkey tracks

This tracking expedition made me wonder why the bears had been out in the middle of January looking for food. We had had an excellent acorn crop, and they should have been settled in for their long winter’s sleep with their fecal plugs, a wad of material held within the bear’s colon, in place. Yet not only had they eaten, but at least one bear had also defecated.

Apparently bears are more likely to be out late if their food supply is plentiful, according to researchers, and the late-hibernating bears would probably be males since females in Pennsylvania would be giving birth by mid-January. Those with the previous January cubs most likely would also have been in their dens with them by December.

Three days later I hiked up to our vernal pond on Sapsucker Ridge, three miles from the bear tracks area on Laurel Ridge. There I found a pair of frozen bear tracks crossing the pond. I followed them to another pond several hundred feet through the woods, then over to the neighbor’s old clear-cut and down the mountain to a huge pile of downed trees left by the loggers. From there the ridge dropped off sharply, so I could only hike to the near side of the log pile, where I saw the tracks running on top of one of the logs. I couldn’t see any sign of a bear denning on the near side, but it looked like an ideal site for a den.

Tracking the bears in mid-January reminded me of our experience years ago, during a warmer period, when my husband Bruce and I tracked a bear below Sapsucker Ridge through melting snow at the edge of First Field and finally lost the tracks as the snow disappeared beneath a warming sun, leaving large open patches. But later our son, Dave, picked up the trail and eventually found the bear sleeping in a hollow on top of the ground. That was when we realized that bears can still be abroad in January, but my experience on Sapsucker Ridge was the first time I had evidence that they sometimes ate and defecated as well.

Squirrel tracks

Squirrel tracks

In my continual effort to interest our ten-year-old granddaughter, Elanor, in the outdoors, I took her on a tracking expedition the following day. A skim of snow had fallen overnight and blurred all but the most recent tracks. Nevertheless, I put her in the lead, and we followed a series of old deer tracks back and forth over First Field until we spotted fresh tracks that led us along the edge of the woods and straight up the steep Sapsucker Ridge powerline right-of-way.

“We better be quiet,” Elanor said, hoping that the brown humps she saw at the top of the right-of-way were deer. Instead they were frozen piles of dead, hay-scented ferns and other vegetation.

Still, she was undaunted, and we followed deer tracks through a portion of our neighbor’s clear-cut until they swung back onto our land. Elanor also identified numerous squirrel tracks and once I showed her fisher tracks.

When we reached the vernal pond area, she was eager to see the bear tracks but not to follow them, protesting that she was tired. Perhaps, it wouldn’t have been a good plan to return to the log pile with her. If a bear had been denning there, it might have been roused by what is almost always Elanor’s noisy presence.

Instead, we walked over to the Norway spruce grove where I pointed out porcupine tracks that I followed, while she went another direction after deer tracks. We met finally at Alan’s Bench. By then she was more interested in catching an occasional snowflake on her tongue and making snowballs to throw at spruce tree trunks.

Ruffed grouse tracks

Ruffed grouse tracks

But once we reached our home, after she ran down the field trail ahead of me, she was eager to tell her father about all the tracks she had seen and followed, especially those of the bear and deer.

I continued my tracking throughout January. Wild turkeys and deer did dig into the leaf cover in search of acorns in numerous places. Raccoons, coyotes, and foxes were also out and about. One morning I found the filigreed tracks of ruffed grouse stitching back and forth across the Far Field Road. Squirrel, mice, and shrew tracks went under, over, and along fallen logs.

Another morning I followed a pair of pigeon-toed porcupine tracks that crossed Sapsucker Ridge Trail and continued on to the edge of the ridge. Then they started down the mountainside and disappeared into a pile of slash just as the bear had. But judging from the paucity of porcupine tracks, their numbers were down from the previous winters when I found them in most areas of the mountain.

The tracks of a mouse near its burrow

The tracks of a mouse near its burrow

Near the end of January, it started to snow in earnest. With a foot of snow on the ground, we dug out our snowshoes. Although I could still see a few deer, mice, squirrel, turkey and even rabbit tracks, the best of the tracking season was over.

But, as usual, I had learned more about the animals sharing our land—how they moved and where they were concentrated. No wonder I look forward every January to light, tracking snows.

All photos by Dave Bonta on and taken in or near Plummer’s Hollow.

Living with Bears

Ursus americanus close up

Photo by Valerie/ucumari on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

On a warm, humid day in late May, I climbed up Pit Mound Trail to the top of Sapsucker Ridge and followed the old logging road along the ridgetop.

As I reached a foot trail into the forest, a medium-sized black bear burst from the underbrush and ran full-tilt toward me.

“Hey there,” I said. It stopped, looked at me, turned, and ran downhill. As usual, my close encounter with a bear—a mere 30 feet away—was so peaceful that my heart rate didn’t even increase.

Over the years I have had numerous close encounters with black bears, and not once have I felt threatened. That is as it should be according to black bear researcher Benjamin Kilham. He has been studying black bears in the field and raising orphaned cubs at the behest of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department for nearly two decades.

In his excellent, new book, Out on a Limb, Kilham advises us to stand still, look at bears and speak quietly to them. In almost all cases the worse they will do is false charge.

Out on a Limb (cover) by Benjamin KilhamBut if you feed bears, either intentionally or unintentionally, with bird feeders, they quickly become habituated, and you must continue or they may come into your home in search of food. Kilham feels that “nuisance bears” have become so because humans feed them. We learned that lesson when they came on our back porch and turned over metal garbage cans filled with washed cans and bottles for recycling and with birdseed. Once we put those cans in our basement and brought our bird feeders in at night, we had no more bears tramping around on our porch or peering into our bow windows.

Black bears live in a world of scent, Kilham says, and they can smell food from a distance. Especially when wild food is scarce, as it has been our last three autumns without a good acorn crop, bears are on the lookout for black oil sunflower seeds which give them more nutrition than any wild foods available to them.

But they also use scent to track down each other, identify bears in the vicinity, and follow bears that have found surplus food. Their sweat glands excrete alarm scents when they sense predators, such as coyotes. If they are extremely frightened, they emit scent from their anal glands which brings other bears to their rescue.

They leave scent marks on trees along with claw and bite marks. In New Hampshire, where Kilham lives, they favor red pines. On our mountain they use the power poles on our small powerline right-of-way.

The day before I ran into the bear, I was crossing the right-of-way on Laurel Ridge and looked 1900 feet across at Sapsucker Ridge. I spotted a round, black object beneath a power pole. At first I thought it was a shadow, but when I looked through my binoculars I saw a very large black bear nosing around. Then he ambled off toward the vernal pond area.

Later, when I examined the pole, I found it had been shredded as high as seven feet. Probably the bear was a male signaling his availability to local females. Both sexes will back-rub, side-rub, and chin-rub such trees too. They also walk over saplings or crawl under them to leave their sent or mark with their scat or urine.

black bear-marked power pole in Plummer's Hollow

black bear-marked power pole in Plummer’s Hollow (photo by Dave Bonta)

Using radio collars, remote cameras and DNA testing, but most of all his own observations, Kilham has found that other bears not only know the identities of the marking bears but also their gender, mood, relationship to them, and where they stand in the social hierarchy. In his area, females have a core home range from three to five square miles and a dominant female ensures that her daughters and granddaughters set up nearby so she can control an even larger area.

Male cubs are sent on their way at 12 to 18 months of age to live wandering lives, usually in bands of other subadult males so they can overpower females and get access to food. But adult male bears don’t compete with females for space, cover, or water because they are hoping to mate with them. Instead, they wander as far as 200 square miles a year in search of food.

On the other hand, overlapping female home ranges may also be the home ranges of several breeding males, but often only one dominant male will mate with the females in his breeding area. Kilham estimates that only the largest males age eight or older get to mate—10 to 15% of the population–even though males are sexually mature at age two.

In addition to scent, bears communicate through facial expressions, ear movements, body posture (like their stiff-legged walk to intimidate other bears) and vocalizations. The bear I encountered looked startled and Kilham says by studying bears closely, especially some of the cubs he’s raised to adulthood and then continued to observe closely throughout their lives, he has “found a great deal of similarity between human facial expressions and those of bears…Smiles are smiles and frowns are frowns.”

Furthermore, if a bear’s eyes twitch or its ears are cocked back, it is annoyed and deciding what to do. When it is irritated, its ears are half-cocked. If a bear is being cautious but curious it may have one ear cocked forward and one backward.

Black bear vocalizations include what Kilham calls a “guttural reverberation of sound in their chests” when they are angry and as well as a “huh huh” when they are upset and an “mmm, mmm,” appeasement call. They also make a gulping sound that males use to get female bears to go with them during mating season and females use to guide their cubs and keep them safe.

Black bear mother with cubs in Plummer's Hollow

Black bear mother with cubs in Plummer’s Hollow (photo by Dave Bonta)

When cubs are nursing, they make a “deep loud purr” which they also make when they are happy. They have a loud distress call that Kilham says sounds like “Baa Wo Oow,” but I thought was a wailing child. Years ago I heard such a sound one fall morning and then saw two cubs below our house crying while standing over something black. When I rushed down, they ran off still yowling. There on the ground was a dead adult bear. She had been shot out of season with an arrow somewhere on our mountain and had managed to reach our yard before dying or so the game protector we called told us. He took her away, but I will never forget the sound those cubs made.

I often wondered if the cubs survived on their own. They would have been born the previous January and their mother would have begun teaching them about food sources once they had emerged from their den in the spring. Kilham discovered that they learn by mouthing and smelling what their mother eats– buds, young leaves and flowers of trees, especially red maples and white ashes, in spring as well as wildflowers such as nodding sedge, jewelweed, wild lettuce, and especially jack-in-the-pulpit, in summer berries of all kinds, and in autumn acorns and beechnuts. In all three seasons they devour ants, bees, and grubs. One of Kilham’s cubs, Squirty, ate 40 to 60 ant nests in an hour while another, Yoda, consumed 20 to 30 yellow jacket nests. They are also opportunists and will take newborn fawns and young nestlings and fledglings. A Pennsylvania Game Commission study found that they were a major predator on fawns.

Black bear enjoying a foggy day by Howard Ignatius

Black bear enjoying a foggy day by Howard Ignatius (CC BY-NC-ND)

Because Kilham suffers from severe dyslexia, he is not a trained biologist. Instead, he makes his living as a gunsmith. Yet year after year, he goes into the woods to watch bears. Through various experiments he has found that bears use fresh ungulate scats as probiotics and that they can learn to recognize themselves in mirrors. He also discovered what is now called the Kilham organ by noticing that the cubs he raised mouthed all new-to-them vegetation, often holding it in their mouths for a few seconds and then releasing it unmarked. He dissected a road-killed bear and found a fleshy organ about jelly bean-sized in the pocket of a V-shaped bone, called the vomer, which is under the center of the nose and above the palate. Eventually, after years of research, he realized that sensory nerves in the organ allowed them to identify airborne scent with it. They also use it to figure out what is safe to eat.

At a lecture he gave at the College of the Atlantic (which I watched on YouTube), someone asked him why he studied bears. His answer was that “We need to know more about the animals we exist with.” And, as he says in his book, “You don’t need to be a credentialed scientist to make new discoveries. You just need to go outside and open your eyes.”