Join our brand new verified AMN Telegram channel and get important news uncensored!

It’s bear season: Birdfeeders, chickens, trash attract them

Bear climbs two utility poles. (AZ Game & Fish Dept/Twitter)

David Wattles loves birds but hates birdfeeders.

Every year feeders attract black bears to backyards which leads to chance encounters with people and pets. It rarely ends well, especially for the bears.

May is the beginning of what is essentially a three-month bear season where the animals are more active and sometimes end up in spots that aren’t ideal such as on porches and on heavily-trafficked streets. Last week one was tranquilized and moved after he wandered down Northampton’s busy Main Street, said Wattles, the black bear and furbearer biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

By April, black bears are out of their dens and soon after they start becoming active. There are several reasons sightings are more common now, he said.

Yearlings are sent on their own for the first time and, like many teenagers, tend to get in trouble as they are navigating their new independence. At the same time, mothers are emerging with babies born in the den over the winter and are protective while teaching them to forage for food. It is also mating season and older males are traveling greater distances than normal in search for a mate, Wattles said.

The bear population, estimated at 4,000 to 5,000, has stayed pretty steady in Massachusetts over the past few years. But the animals are spreading out: They can be found in the Berkshires near the New York border and are expanding their territory east as far as Worcester, he said.

“Bears are part of our lives now,” Wattles said. “There are bears in Agawam, West Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton and Easthampton. Bears can use relatively small slices of forest.”

The Department of Wildlife knows of two that live on the edge of Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, they are all over Holyoke and have figured out how to navigate busy highways and swim across rivers to reach new territory, he said.

Certainly, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper understands. When asked about the animals, she jokes “We have bears.”

“They are not the problem, it’s the people,” Kasper said. “Spring season we get an increase in bear calls. We tell them the best thing is to leave them be.”

But on April 30 that changed when a male bear ended up wandering through the city’s busy downtown at about 11:30 a.m. The frightened 200-pounder climbed a tree next to the Northampton Courthouse and stayed there.

Afraid of what would happen if the bear came down on a Sunday morning when people were milling about and cars were passing, environmental police were called. They tranquilized the bruin and moved him to an undisclosed location within his range but outside the trouble zone.

The bear was considered a wayward animal, not a problem one. The Department euthanizes bears that are considered aggressive toward people or pets because there is no place to move them in the state where they won’t become a problem to someone else, Wattles said.

Hearing of a bear near downtown is not uncommon since they have been spotted on Market Street and other roads off Main Street, but this is only the second time the Environmental Police has had to tranquilize one. The other was years ago when a smaller female bear ended up climbing a tree behind Starbucks, Kasper said.

In her 25-year career with the Northampton Police Department, Kasper said she has also seen a moose and a coyote stroll through downtown at different times and there have been two significant bee swarms on Main Street.

“It causes a commotion and it is a challenge to manage,” she said.

If the police department receives a call about a bear sighting, the patrol officer is informed but doesn’t usually respond, mostly because they don’t want to attract more attention to the bear.

Generally, they tell callers to leave the bear alone and later make sure they bring in any food sources – birdfeeders, trash cans, pet food — so the bear won’t have a reason to stay if they return.

“The problem is people getting too close to take a picture. Animals need their space,” she said.

Bears are omnivores and those who live in the woods generally eat berries, grasses, bugs and the occasional carrion in the summer and feast on acorns and beech nuts in the fall. They hibernate because their natural food sources are limited in winter, Wattles said.

Because of that, they need to gain a lot of weight over the summer. The reason they start showing up in neighborhoods instead of staying in the woods is “food, food, food,” Wattles said.

Bears are successful in finding food in populated areas evidenced by the fact bears who often visit suburbs are bigger than those who stay in the woods. This year environmental officals also found yearlings are smaller than usual because there were fewer berries due to last year’s drought and the acorn crop was also smaller, he said.

Which is why birdfeeders are a problem. Bears have good memories and quickly learn if they empty a feeder the next day it will be full again. Mothers also teach their cubs that backyards are good places to find dinner.

“Birdfeeders are thousands and thousands of calories. It is like eating a jar of peanut butter for them,” Wattles said.

Some people will tell him they take in their birdfeeders at night, but bears forage during the day. Others say they don’t put feeders out in the summer but Wattles said some suburban bears are raiding feeders so often they aren’t hibernating as much.

Now the biggest trigger of bear vs. people conflicts is backyard chickens, he said.

More people are raising the birds in their backyards and while black bears aren’t designed to chase down prey they will eat a chicken.

“They have learned a chicken in a coop is a sitting duck,” he said. “You can’t build a chicken coop that is strong enough to keep a bear out.”

Homeowners have been known to try to stop a bear by shooting them with a BB gun or a real gun, injuring or even killing the bear, Wattles said.

Wattles encourages those who have chickens and beehives to surround them with electric fences. The state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife offers simple directions for building an electric fence on its website.

He also encouraged people to put trash cans in a garage or a shed because bears know how to break into a can with a secured lid. People should also be cautious about their compost piles, he said.

For businesses or apartment complexes, the Department of Wildlife urges owners to use metal top dumpsters because bears can break plastic ones, he said.

Bears can sometimes forage from homeowners’ vegetable gardens or fruit trees, but it is not as much of a problem. In the wild bears mostly wait for fruit to drop and eat it from the ground, but most people with fruit trees or gardens pick the produce as soon as it gets ripe, Wattles said.

That doesn’t mean a bear won’t snatch up tomatoes or raid a blueberry bush. He does encourage people with fruit trees to clean up any fallen fruit as soon as possible.

The main problem with having a bear near homes is the chance encounters. For example, a dog let outdoors that encounters a bear will try to protect its owner. Then the owner gets in between to shield the dog and comes in contact with the bear, Wattles said.

In general black bears are not aggressive and will run away if they can. If a mother is trying to protect her cubs, she will send them up a tree, Wattles said.

Dog owners should take precautions during bear season and walk pets on a short leash even in the woods. Dogs are even more vulnerable to coyote attacks than bear attacks, especially if they get close to a den with pups, he said.

“If your dog is on a leash and under your control your presence prevents a coyote or a bear from going after your dog,” he said.


© 2023 Advance Local Media LLC

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC