Let’s get this out of the way right here at the top: Full disclosure? I have eaten bear.
It was a family gathering in Northern Indiana at Christmas. And among the dishes laid out was a crockpot with some kind of bear meat in a barbecue-style sauce.
I don’t have much memory of it other than being a bit greasy and a bit gamey, though I assume some of that was the preparation.
Where did it come from? I don’t know.
Why would I eat bear meat of unknown origin in a crockpot in a part of the country with my decided like of bears? I’m not sure. I was a teen.
There may have been peer pressure from my uncles. We had several hunters in the family. I now assume one of them had, in Davy Crockett vernacular, “kilt them” a bear and brought it back to Hoosier-land.
I bring that up now as we begin a discussion of what bears eat, and mention that we – or at least some of us – eat them.
Are black bears omnivores?
According to the National Park Service (NPS), bears, like people, are omnivores – which means, in general, we eat both plants and meat.
I’m glad I looked that up, because I thought it meant we both ate everything. The unfortunate misadventure with a crockpot full of greasy bear meat aside – looking over the list of what a bear eats – I can safely say we humans do NOT eat everything.
What do black bears eat?
What bears eat is largely dependent upon what they find in their habitat.
In the Smokies, the habitat of our black bear population includes pretty much the whole park and beyond.
A bear’s diet chiefly consists of plants and berries, according to the NPS. Another 15% or so is made up of insects and animal carrion that bears consume to get their protein.
It turns out bears need a massive amount of food to survive. They spend most of their time eating, traveling or sleeping which, you know, I feel seen.
The food they like includes other small mammals, plants, apples, raspberries, cherries, blackberries, nuts, insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
So pretty much anything, including young deer or elk in the Smokies. The bears are smart, too. They remember possible food source locations.
The website North American Nature says, “Black bears will remember where ungulates such as deer and elk have given birth, deliberately hunting in those areas year after year. In other areas, the bears will come across the young whilst traveling.”
Bears will only take down larger animals if the animal is weakened or injured.
Black bears will pass on a meal if it is possible the meal would hurt or injure the bear.
The NPS recommends making yourself as big and loud and imposing as possible if threatened by a black bear for that reason.
What is a black bear’s favorite food?
But bears do not exist on meat alone. In fact, it is just a small part of a bear’s diet.
Bears, unlike deer and elk, have a single-chambered stomach and a long digestive tract they use to squeeze extra nutrients out of their meal.
Bears like plants when they are the most nutritious and tender. Again, hard same.
Berries, fruit and nuts are popular with bears as they ripen in season. A bear’s ability to climb is advantageous because it allows the bear to get food before it falls to the ground while other animals have to wait for it.
It turns out the only place where a bear’s diet significantly alters from mine – we’re counting deer and elk babies in the larger category of meat – is insects.
Bears eat a large range of insects and worms, using their sticky tongues to sweep up the unlucky bugs.
A bear’s favorite insects include ants, grubs, grasshoppers, beetle larvae, moths, earthworms and caterpillars.
I have only personally eaten three off that list, so I am clearly not a bear.
When food sources (and bugs) are more scarce in the winter, they will enter a “sleepy” state in their winter dens around November or December.
Bears in the Smokies often den in hollow stumps and tree cavities. Black bears in the Smokies do not traditionally fully hibernate through the winter if the weather is warm.
How do black bears feed their babies?
Mama black bears give birth to cubs in the winter denning period, according to the NPS.
A litter can have between 1-5 cubs, but most litters have an average of two.
The NPS isn’t clear on how long the cubs drink their mother’s milk, but most sources say it’s somewhere between 3-8 months.
Mother bears and their cubs typically emerge in the spring, around March or April, and the cubs stay with their mothers for a year and a half to protect them from predators like bobcats or coyotes.
Do bears really eat honey?
It turns out that while bears will eat honey, they’re more interested in the bees themselves.
Despite Winnie the Pooh-based propaganda, honey can’t compare to the nutritional value of bee larvae.
And yes, apparently they will endure a sting or two, but the bees overall have a hard time getting through the bear’s fur.
Are bears attracted to garbage?
Finally, bears are scavengers who will eat trash.
For the record, I will only eat trash in a metaphorical sense.
They can also be attracted to things like pet food.
Bears can live 12-15 years or more on average, however, bears that have had access to human foods and garbage have a life expectancy of only half that time.
Human garbage is deadly for bears. Remember when we said bears are smart and remember where they found a good meal?
That brings them back to campgrounds and dumpsters where they found food before.
According to the NPS, this is bad for three main reasons:
First of all, it changes the bear’s behavior and causes them to lose their instinctive fear of humans. Over time, these bears may begin approaching people in search of food and may become more unpredictable and dangerous.
Secondly, bears that obtain human food and garbage damage property and injure people. These bears pose a risk to public safety. They can also teach other bears this dangerous behavior. Often, they must be euthanized.
Lastly, studies have shown that bears that lose their fear of people by obtaining human food and garbage never live as long as bears that feed on natural foods and are shy and afraid of people.
Many are hit by cars and become easy targets for poachers.
Always lock up your trash and do not offer food for a bear.
Have you encountered a bear in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments.