Black Bears

by Richard Munn|Published 00-00-0000

Most wilderness paddlers have mixed feelings about bears.

black bearOn one hand, the sighting of a bear is cause for excitement. It's a very real indication to us that we've left the city behind and are now in a wilderness area.

However, when we encounter any animal large enough to potentially cause injury , there is an element of fear involved also. There's always a bit of discomfort in knowing that we're not necessarily at the top of the food chain, even if that possibility is very, very remote.


Black bears inhabit most of mainland Canada with the exception of the far northern reaches of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta and Prince Edward Island.

black bear range in Canada



Black bears mate in June or July, and cubs are born in January or February while the mother is still denning. A typical litter will consist of one or two cubs, and very occasionally litters of up to four.

Cubs are very small when compared to the size of the mother. A newborn black bear cub is only 6" to 8" long and weighs about half a lb.

Cubs leave the den with their mother in the spring and are quite active by this time. By the time they are one year old, they will weigh between 25 and 50 lb.

Food Sources

 Bears range far and wide in search of food, and their eating habits do not discriminate against any type of food. They are true omnivores, eating whatever is available.

A great deal of their food supply is vegetation, including grass and leaves. They eat large quantities of berries and nuts, and insects such as ants, grubs and grasshoppers. Bears gather these insects using their strong claws to upturn rocks and logs.

Carrion is a particular favourite, and the more decomposed meat is, the more attractive it becomes.

Bears are not particularly good hunters, although their opportunistic style of food gathering means that they will readily eat birds, rodents and fish. Bears have also been known to prey on the calves of moose, deer and caribou.

Appearance and Adaptations

Perhaps because of an innate fear of bears, we tend to overestimate their weight and size. In fact, most female bears weigh between 100 and 150 lb., and males seldom weigh more than 300 lb. Very rarely, males have been observed with weights up to 600 lb. and higher.

The name black bear is not entirely descriptive. Bears can exhibit a wide range of colours, from black to almost white. Most cubs will show the same colouring as their mother.

The ambling gait of black bears may give the impression that they are slow and clumsy, but they are in fact quite speedy when necessary. Bears have been clocked at speeds of up to 55 km/hr over short distances. Far from being clumsy, they are amazingly agile tree climbers, and can move through the underbrush in complete silence. As far as the old myth that bears can't run downhill ... forget it! Black bears can run uphill, downhill and over flat ground with equal ease and agility.

Bears are also excellent swimmers, and regularly visit islands in their travels. They are comfortable in swift water, and have been spotted swimming several kilometres from shore in large bodies of water.


Because of their strength and large size, adult bears have no real predators other than humans. Bear cubs will occasionally fall victim to wolves, lynx and older bears.


There are several bear behaviours which are commonly misunderstood.

The first is the act of standing up on the hind legs. Often perceived as threatening behaviour, it is actually related to the bear trying to get a better view and scent of an object, person or animal. It is more a gesture of curiosity than of aggression.

Another is the act of charging. These charges are almost always "bluff charges," intended to demonstrate the bear's fear and desire to have the perceived threat leave the area. It is very rare that a bear would follow through on one of these bluff charges and actually make contact with a person.

Interaction with Humans

Those of us that travel frequently into wilderness areas will vouch for the fact that black bears are quiet, shy and do their best to avoid contact with humans. A bear sighting in the wilderness is not all that common.

Despite of this, bears are intelligent animals, and can quickly become habituated to human presence. They learn that human food is an easy source of nutrition, and can therefore become a nuisance. Bears congregate around landfill sites because of the easy availability of food, and can also learn to steal canoeists food packs.

The danger of bear-human encounters is most often greatly exaggerated. Hundreds of thousands of these encounters take place every year in North America, and injuries and fatalities are so rare as to be of little concern.

Useful Web Links

North American Bear Centre
An organization with a focus on improving the understanding and appreciation of North American Bears.

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Bear Info
A bear information page presented by the Ontario MNR with advice on living with black bears.

Wikipedia entry on American Black Bears


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