Photo by Doug Little
Someone mentioned to me recently that bears gave them the heebie-jeebies, and were far more frightening than most snakes. As a person who isn't overly afraid of either, but respects both, I thought a post on our southern subspecies of black bear might be interesting. Hey, maybe my friend who shall go nameless (Mae) will suddenly realize she's not afraid of them at all. Nah. Probably not. But at least she might understand more about them, and that usually helps with negative feelings. So with that thought in mind, this post is dedicated to Mae, and I hope she enjoys it!
Florida Black Bear
(Ursus americanus floridanus)
The Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) is a subspecies of black bear found in Florida, southern Alabama, southern Georgia, and southern Mississippi. It is Florida's largest terrestrial mammal, with average males weighing about 300 pounds, though a few can weigh in at over 500. Females weigh considerably less, and are overall, smaller animals. Obviously, the bear is a large-bodied animal with shiny black fur, and sometimes sports a white patch on the chest area. But they don't start out that big. In fact, they start out downright teensy.
Awww. Just look at that adorable little (toothless) face!
Of course, they grow . . .
And grow . . .
And grow some more . . .
Getting into plenty of mischief along the way!
And before you know it, you've got a big bruiser like this one. And that's when the potential for trouble can start.
Left to their own devices, with plenty of land to roam in, black bears are seldom a problem. They are not predators. They are opportunistic omnivores. Omni means anything, and black bears will pretty much eat anything that doesn't eat them first. But they don't track down prey like a true predator. Their diet is largely vegetative, believe it or not, with a big helping of insects, such as bumblebees and ants. They will supplement their diet with the occasional armadillo, and are perfectly happy to dine on carrion, as well. Human beings are not part of their normal diet, honest. This animal, though it has the potential to be extremely dangerous, is normally a live and let live kinda guy. In other words, stay out of his way, and he'll stay out of yours.
However, run-ins with people occur more and more frequently, and can be very dangerous. In a fight between a bear and an unarmed human being, the bear holds the winning hand--a hand filled with long, sharp claws, I might add. Obviously, it is better to avoid that type of confrontation, and admire bears from a safe distance.
When run-ins do occur, they can be chalked up to two main causes: 1) Human habitation pushing into the bear's territory, drawing the animals into neighborhoods filled with tempting things. And 2) actions on the part of humans that pose a threat to the bear, be it perceived or otherwise, or worse, to a mama bear's cubs. Here are some examples of what I mean.
"Yum! A bear bath! How refreshing!"
"Wow! This one's big enough to dunk my whole head!"
"Oh, now THIS is what I'm talkin' about! Hey, Kids! Come on! Last one in's a rotten egg!"
See what I mean? Sometimes, when homes push into the edge of the woods, these kinds of temptations are hard for our ursine friends to resist. This can result in dangerous situations for the homeowners, and often end up with the bears being reported as nuisance animals that need to be relocated. Or worse. Not happy events for bears OR people. And no easy answers if you've bought a house in a neighborhood bears visit.
Of course, it can be hard to predict exactly what will look tempting to a curious bear.
"Hmmm. This ain't all bad. Beats sleeping in the dirt, under a palmetto, any day!"
You can see from the above that bears are curious, love a good water feature, and don't mind a comfy place to take a nap. But the number one thing that attracts bears into neighborhood yards is, as you would expect, something good to eat.
"Woohoo! Snack bar ahead!"
"Oh, wait. This one's better! Full of little crunchy things!"
"Yeah, but look what I found! Mmmph! Chomp, chomp, chomp! Oh, yum! Steak bones!"
You get my drift. Living close to a wooded area is beautiful, interesting, and full of birdsong. But it presents its own set of challenges if you are in bear territory. And in Florida, there are certain areas where black bears abound. Guess who lives in the middle of that dark brown area? Yep. Me! Guess how many wild bears I've ever seen? One. And it was only half grown, standing on the side of a highway in the middle of the Ocala Forest. I'd driven by him before my mind even registered what I'd seen. No pictures. *sniff*
The fact that I haven't been lucky enough to see more bears (from the safety of my car) notwithstanding, they do make the news quite frequently throughout central Florida, as they forage for garbage, or cut through a subdivision on their way from Point A to Point B. It's actually a wonder we don't have more issues with them than we do.
Reason enough to stay inside, as far as I'm concerned, or . . .
. . . you could yell "Booga, booga, booga" out your window, and hope for this result.
Seriously, making a loud noise can often scare the bear away. . .
. . . unless, of course, it scares the critter(s) up a tree, where they stay all day, glaring down at passersby,
and muttering dark imprecations against noisy people.
Far better to enjoy black bears in the wild, from a safe distance. I hope this guy was using a telephoto lens.
Black bears belong in our woods, and should receive the same respect and protection as any other wild animal.
Another of Doug's pics, taken along the shores of the St. Johns River.
I mentioned above that there are two ways to get in trouble with black bears, and shared a lot of photos of the first one--curious bears exploring neighborhoods that abut their habitat. The second way we run into trouble with bears is by presenting ourselves as a threat to them, or their cubs. You never want a bear to decide you are between him and where he needs to go, or you are a threat to the next generation of bearkind.
This is about as dangerous as it gets, folks. Mama is on high alert, and she's lookin' at YOU. Her cubs are tiny, and vulnerable, and she is more than capable of doing murder in their defense.
This is what we call "Get out of Dodge" time. Get back in the car, and drive away.
A few interesting facts for your consideration.
- More than 100 bears are killed each year on Florida's roads, making roadkill the number one cause of death for these animals, and any vehicle smaller than a Mack truck.
- The two largest black bears ever recorded in Florida were males weighing 740 and 760 pounds.
- Bears feeding extensively on human-supplied food (garbage, birdseed, pet food) can become huge from the excessive calorie content.
- Florida black bears have a diet that usually consists of 80% plants, 15% insects, and 5% animal matter.
- Florida's black bears do not follow Bergmann's Rule, which states that animals are often smaller the farther south they live (as in white-tailed deer). Conversely, Florida's black bears are larger than black bears found in Canada.
- Controversy over Florida's 2015 bear hunt halted future hunts until more studies are done. In the meantime, many communities have taken action to discourage bears from "backyard foraging," including bear-proof garbage cans. Residents are instructed to prevent access to foods, such as livestock or pet food, by locking garbage cans inside garages, and removing bird and wildlife feeders.
All in all, solutions can be found to reduce the danger from bears who are mostly just trying to survive in a greatly reduced habitat. They'd much rather loll around in the sun, eating dandelions.
With research, study, and some common sense rules, humans and black bears should be able to co-exist in this changing world. That's my hope, anyway.
I suspect if he could talk, this little guy would agree.
Until we meet again, stretch your legs, take a walk, and find a good backscratcher.
And that's about it for today's post. I hope you've enjoyed the pics, and learning a bit about one of
Florida's most interesting and misunderstood animals.
Stay tuned--next week, we'll take a look at one of our rarest! The Florida panther.
See you then!