How Black Bears Use Wild Plants

Here in Haliburton County (Central Ontario, Canada), when the black bears exit their dens in spring, it’s only with a tummy growl. They seldom growl in any other way.

Black Bear Hiding Behind Plant
“You Can’t See Me!”

Black bears need to ease back into eating after they emerge, so they first wander around in search of the edible wild plants like overwintered mountain ash berries. They may also scavenge leftover winter predator kills, and other carrion, as plant food is sparse. Throughout the year they pepper their diet with honey, grubs, insects – especially moths, fish, snakes, small mammals, and occasionally take out a deer, elk or moose calf. But wild plants make up as much as 90% of a bears diet.

Spring Plant Allies

Some of the plants they eat in spring here are various grasses, sedges, young tree shoots, and nutty caches they sniff out. These caches are mainly thanks to red squirrels. And of course, as spring settles in there are dandelions. Dandelions aren’t just for the bees. (Here’s a crisp photo capture of a black bear eating dandelions!) Spring delicacies also include our evergreen horsetail and the catkins of aspen and balsam poplar.

Summer Plant Allies

As plant life blossoms, added treats include forbs such as clovers (locally our most common clovers are red, white and hops), cow parsnip, wild vetch, sweet cicely, thistle, fireweed, spring beauty, beaked hazel, and roses.

Bears most famously go for blueberries (locally these are mainly low sweet blueberry and velvet-leaf blueberry varieties). Some travel long distances from patch to patch, gorging. Wild red raspberries and other raspberry varieties, currants, pin cherry, chokecherry, serviceberries, hawthorn, bearberry, buffalo-berry, wild strawberries, wild sarsaparilla, and red-osier dogwood also produce berries they love.

Autumn Plant Allies

Black Bear in Burdock
Black Bear in Burdock

As autumn approaches, our apple trees begin to fruit. I’ve many times watched a bear binge on apples and then cap that off with laxative jewelweed. This is the bear activity I hope to see more of firsthand – black bears using wild plants for medicine.

I often hear our ancestors learned much about what is good, to eat and for medicine, from bears. And if I was lost in the wild, and facing starvation, I’d hope a mama black bear would let me follow her and her cubs around to where the food and medicine is.

Black Bear Claw Marks Sign
Black Bear Claw Marks Sign on a Sugar Maple Tree

Into autumn, the Makwag (that’s bears in Ojibwe, singular Makwa) start going nuts – red oak’s acorns, beechnuts, white and black spruce seeds, and white pine seeds. Bog cranberries ripen as leaves show hints of color. Mushrooms abound, and as ever, most forbs round out their diet.

Speaking of pine, white pine is a favored tree for black bear mamas. They will seek out the tallest to tree their cubs in for safekeeping. But in a pinch, any tree will do:

Black Bear Treed in White Spruce
Black Bear Treed in White Spruce
Black Bear Treed in White Spruce

As the feeding frenzy peaks, our bears are a common sight at county dumps. Sick and elder bears in particular. It’s a sad sight really. And going off the generally small size of yearlings I’ve seen here, my neck of Haliburton County isn’t the richest in food sources. Yet the population is estimated to be about 24 bears per 100km2 from here northward.

Winter Plant Allies

As winter approaches our bears are, hopefully, so plump they jiggle all over. They will seek out suitable dens once more. Perhaps a cave with a bed of spruce boughs? Or maybe a hollow in a dead tree’s trunk?

Black bears have countless plant allies for food, medicine, and shelter; and I like them better than most people, so who better to kick off the Wild Allies Series?

Here’s a great resource if you want to learn more about black bears and to clear out the vast misinformation about these gentle relations > Bear With Us

After I wrote this I found this page, which has a Bears Annual Food Cycle Chart courtesy of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

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