The only native bear that can be found in the state of California is the black bear (Ursus americanus). Due to their large population, which could be as large as 35,000 in California alone, it isn’t uncommon to come across one while in known bear country. As a result, it’s important to know how to safely interact with a black bear if you encounter one in the wild. Fortunately, fatal attacks are rare unless cornered and they will almost always retreat if given the opportunity to escape. In fact, humans pose a larger threat to black bears than they do to us, cutting the average life span of a bear by more than half due to encounters on roadways and with illegal poaching.
With the ability to weigh as much as 500 pounds, the black bear is a relatively large bear. However, most are much smaller, rarely exceeding 300 pounds. They exhibit sexual dimorphism – weight being the most apparent difference. It’s important to note that not all black bears are actually black in color. Instead, they can be any variation of black, brown, blonde or white.
- Size, Color and Sexual Dimorphism of the Black Bear (PDF)
- Physical Description of the American Black Bear
- Color Phases of American Black Bears
- Facts about Black Bear Fur
- Physical Appearance of the Black Bear
Typically, black bears prefer to live in wooded habitat, which gives them the ideal coverage for raising young, foraging for food and hibernating during the winter. Sometimes, they are also found in open scrub land when the food becomes scarce in the mountains. As a general rule, they will stay wherever the food is abundant. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads them to wander too close to civilization in pursuit of an easy meal from open trash cans and unprotected pic-nick sites.
- Habitat and Distribution of the Black Bear
- Habitat Requirements of the Black Bear
- Distribution of Black Bears in Northern California (PDF)
- Black Bears in Yosemite National Park
- Typical Habitat of the North American Black Bear
Longevity and Mortality
In the wild, it is possible for a healthy black bear to live as long as thirty years old. However, very few make it this long, especially in areas that are close to humans. Instead, it’s more common for a black bear to only live a decade before having a fatal encounter with a human. In terms of natural deaths, bear cubs are most at risk because of their small stature and general inexperience. This is why they stay with their mother until they are roughly a year-and-a-half old.
- Survival of Black Bears in Northern California (PDF)
- Wild Survival of Black Bear Cubs (PDF)
- Longevity of the Black Bear
- Life Span and General Information about Black Bears
- Life Expectancy of Black Bears
Black bears go through a period of hibernation, during the winter. In the months leading up to hibernation, they spend their days actively foraging for food so that they can accumulate enough fat to last them through the winter. When they are ready, they will retreat to a secure den site. Usually, their den is inside of a hollowed tree or stump; however, caves and rock overhangs can also provide shelter.
- Den Selection of the American Black Bear (PDF)
- Hibernating Black Bears
- Stages of Black Bear Hibernation
- Black Bear Hibernation and Metabolic Suppression
- Bear Essentials of Hibernation
The perceived diet of the American black bear is often shrouded in myth and misconception. While many people think that these bears lead a carnivorous lifestyle, their natural diet actually includes very little hunted meat – most of the mammalian meat they eat is scavenged. Instead, they prefer to forage for berries, nuts, grasses and aquatic plants. Insects and fish also make up a large part of their diet, as well.
- Typical Diet of a Black Bear
- Food Habits of the Black Bear
- What Black Bears Eat
- Diet and other Facts about Black Bears (PDF)
- Food Habits of California Black Bears (PDF)
Relationship with Humans
Just like their diet is often a topic of misinformation, the relationship that black bears maintain with humans is also frequently subjected to myths and urban legends. One of these is that they are prone to vicious, unprovoked attacks on humans. In reality, a black bear will go out of its way to avoid contact unless they are with cubs, protecting a kill or are accustomed to being fed by humans. They have long been a symbol of a connection to the Earth in Native American folklore, and are a common totem for many people.
- Black Bear Symbolism
- Camping, Hiking and Storing Food around Black Bears
- How to Safely Live around California Black Bears (PDF)
- Conflicts between Humans and Black Bears (PDF)
- Legends about the Black Bear
- General Myths about Bears
- The Fisherman and the Bear
Further Resources on Black Bears:
- Mythology and Folklore about Bears
- Hiking and Camping around Black Bears
- Facts about Living and Visiting Black Bear Country
- Identifying Black Bear Tracks and Scat
- Interactive Black Bear Puzzle
- Fun Facts and Quizzes about Black Bears
- Comparison of Black Bear Deterrents (PDF)
- Rescuing an Orphaned Black Bear Cub
- Genetic Diversity Research on Black Bears in California
- Fun Facts about California Black Bears
- Comprehensive List of References about Black Bears (PDF)
- Frequently Asked Questions about Black Bears
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