It was about 8 pm, one rainy, cool evening on May 28, when I made a fateful decision. I went against advice I had given to many people repeatedly including those who read this column. I decided not to take in our bird feeders that night because it was cold and raining cats, and later I determined, bears that night! I didn’t want to get wet, so I took the chance of leaving the bird feeders out overnight. Afterall, there were no signs of bears around our land all spring. According to my thinking, it would be highly unlikely a bear would show up to raid our bird feeders during the night especially when their natural foods were becoming abundant.
I got up the next morning to see what birds were coming to our feeders and, much to my dismay, two bird feeding stations were essentially totaled. However, I was able to find and salvage most of the feeders after a little repair work. While repairing feeders, two thoughts came to mind. One, how am I going to explain this to people I’ve told to take in their feeders during spring bear season and two, never underestimate the power of a bear nose to pick up the scent of food at a bird-feeding station.
Having received numerous reports from others who have done as I do and not as I say, I feel it is time to review, once again, black bear bird feeder etiquette.
According to Brad Koele, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife damage specialist, here are some quick tips that bear, pun intended, repeating to help homeowners avoid potential bear conflicts. "Many conflicts between homeowners and black bears occur as a result of some type of attractant, especially bird feeders, garbage cans, grills, uncontained compost or pet food left outside and accessible."
According to Koele, it is especially important to remove these attractants during the spring, when bears are emerging from dens and looking to restore depleted energy reserves when natural foods are limited. I have also found problems during black bear mating season around June when mother bears “kick out” their two-year-old youngsters who must start foraging for themselves. Some cubs will remember what their moms taught them, bird feeding stations are easy food.
Koele goes on to say it is illegal to intentionally feed bears in Wisconsin, but it is also important for homeowners to make sure they do not unintentionally feed bears via an accessible food source near their home. Black bears normally avoid contact with people, but when food sources are available bears can quickly learn to associate humans with food. That is not good for bears or people.
If a bear finds food, such as bird feed, pet food, or garbage near your home, it will likely return. Visits are more likely to stop when food is no longer available. Bears will periodically check sites where food was once available, so it may take several days to weeks before a bear will quit visiting a site once the food source has been removed.
The "Living with Bears in Wisconsin" document — found at dnr.wi.gov, keywords "wildlife damage" or “bear” — will help landowners learn more about safely co-existing with bears in Wisconsin.
For the good of us and black bears, homeowners can follow these simple steps to avoid attracting bears:
* do not knowingly feed a bear;
* completely remove bird feeders, even during daytime hours — bears are active during the day and may cause problems even if the feeders are out only during that time;
* clean areas where bird feeders were located so that accumulated deposits of spilled seed are removed;
* reduce garbage odors by rinsing food cans before putting them in covered recycling containers or garbage cans;
* keep meat scraps in the freezer until garbage day, and if possible, keep garbage cans in a closed building until the morning of pick-up;
* be sure to lock commercial dumpsters;
* keep pet food inside or inaccessible to bears even during daytime hours; and
* keep barbecue grills and picnic tables clean.
Wisconsin is home to one of the largest black bear populations in the lower 48 states, estimated to be between 25,000 and 30,000 bears. This population has grown dramatically over the last 30 years. Bears are now found in 45 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties and recently have expanded into new areas of central and southern Wisconsin.
Although classified as a carnivore, bears eat practically anything much like an omnivore with their diet changing with the seasons. Because of this, they sometimes become a nuisance when they become habituated to eating bird food in bird feeders, farmers’ corn and soybeans, and honey from local bee hives. Despite this, many Wisconsinites and tourists feel it special when they see a black bear in the wild.
Black bears are most active and seen at twilight. Males weigh an average of 250 to 500 pounds while females weigh 225 to 450 pounds. They are territorial and mostly solitary except for mothers with cubs. The males have a territory of 15 to 30 square miles, females about five square miles. The females breed every two years having a liter of one to five cubs but averaging about two to three.