Tuesday, August 24, 2010


"Ger, a bear is here."

These are not the whispered words one hopes to awaken to at 3 a.m. on a moonlit summer night - especially when "here" is right there, just five feet away. "She has a cub with her," said JR. Suddenly, the full-length screens that separate our cabin's sleeping porch from the Great Outdoors seemed incredibly flimsy. 

There are bears in our part of northern Michigan, but 90 percent of the estimated 15,000-19,000 bears in Michigan live in the Upper Peninsula. Although we often hear the snort of white-tailed deer in the woods surrounding the cabin, our several bird feeders have never been molested - a sure sign that no bear has passed our way. All that changed as I slowly raised my head and came face to face with Ursus americanus - an American Black Bear. 

Black bears are one of the most extraordinary animals in the forest. When food is scarce during the cold Michigan winters, they go into a state of lethargy from October until April or early May. Asleep in their dens, they reduce their metabolic rate, surviving without eating, drinking, exercising or passing waste. During this time, usually in January, they give birth to one to three cubs, waking occasionally to feed and care for them.

Not eating is a surefire way to trim down and during their long sleep, bears lose up to 30 percent of their fall weight, which can range from 100-250 pounds for a female and 150-400 pounds for a male. When they emerge in the spring, they're very hungry, but have to content themselves with spring grasses and an occasional frog or nest of eggs.  By the time summer arrives, however, bears are eating 11 to 18 pounds of berries, fruits, nuts and insects every day. It takes a lot of foraging to find that much food, so I'm sure well-stocked bird feeders are always a welcome sight.  

Our bears, which we can see quite clearly in the light of the full moon, look like they've been eating well. They're both standing on their hind legs. The mother bear is about 5'3" - just my height, but she weighs about 200 pounds, which is probably what I'd weigh if I ate 18 pounds of food a day. The cub is about three feet tall and is quite a husky little fellow.

Bears have a keen sense of smell, but are very nearsighted. We, however, are obviously well within their range of vision because our bears are looking right at us. If it weren't for the screens and a well-placed sense of caution, we could reach out and touch them. How frightening! How exciting! What a great photo! Nonetheless, I decide this is not the time to get up and grab the camera. 

While we (and the cub) look on, the mother bear makes quick work of our bird feeders, ripping them apart with her sharp claws.  She saves the oriole feeder, the one right next to the porch, for last.  She's so close now that we hear the glug, glug, glug as she downs the syrupy sugar water. Standing there with the bright orange feeder in one paw, she looks like a Disney cartoon character -- so much so that I wait for her to raise her free paw, wipe it across her mouth and say "Ah!" Instead, she drops the empty feeder, whimpers softly to her cub and the two of them lope quickly off into the forest.

A little research the next day reveals that bear attacks in Michigan are extremely rare. Black bears, in fact, are shy and seek to avoid people - unless you provide them with a food source. We've got new bird feeders, but we take them down every evening and lock them away. We also intend to follow the sage advice of Henry H. Collins in his Field Guide to American Wildlife:  
If you see a bear, leave it alone.  Its sense of responsibility to man is quite limited. 

(To learn more about black bears, click here.)
(To see more photos, click here.)


Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. Bravo pour l'ours c'est absolument genial....
    Il faudra un jour m'organiser une entrevue avec cette famille d'ours

  2. Wow--wonderful photos of these magnificent creatures, Geraldine! What a story. I'm glad they were only hungry!


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