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How Do Black Bear Families Live?

Black bears are solitary animals that usually limit their interactions with one another to when they are mating and when females are taking care of their young. However, if they come across a prevalent food source, black bears become more tolerant of one another and live in a hierarchical system. Male black bears can also be referred to as boars, females are called sows, and the babies are known as cubs. They are typically shy, quiet animals that only show aggression when they are provoked.

To communicate, black bears use sounds, body language, touch, and scent-marking. Some of the noises bears make are grunts, woofs, roars, moans, tongue clicks, a motor-like hum, yelps, or cries. Scent-marking allows the bears to identify one another, claim their territory, and attract potential mates.

What Is Their Life Cycle?

American black bears are polygamous, which means they have several mates throughout their lifetime. Females usually breed once every two years and males mate with many females as they can each year. The breeding season for this species takes place in June and July. Females carry a litter of one to five cubs for about 225 days before giving birth in January or February. Although the gestation period lasts for 225 days, the development of the embryos is delayed and does not take place until the last six to eight weeks of pregnancy. When the cubs are born, they are blind and naked and usually weigh less than a pound. They stay in the den and nurse as their mother continues to hibernate. As she sleeps, she nurses them and keeps them warm with her large body, arms, and legs. If the cubs cry, the sow will wake from her deep sleep to tend to her babies’ needs. After about two months, they leave the den for the first time with their mother and they are weaned after about six to eight months.

The female is the only parent involved in the cubs’ lives, providing food and protection and teaching necessary survival skills. When faced with a threat, females become extremely protective of their young. A mother black bear is likely to send her babies to safety and will exhibit aggressive behavior to the intruder. In contrast, the male does not directly contribute to the raising of the young bears. He only helps indirectly by warding off other bears from the area, which limits the competition the cubs must face and allows them a larger share of food. Cubs become independent at about 17 months old, when the mother forces them away so she can mate again. Both male and female black bears become sexually mature some time between two and five years of age. Most American black bears live to be around ten years old in the wild, but they can live up to 30 years if there is an ample food supply and little competition.

How Do Black Bears Spend Their Time?

American black bears are crepuscular animals, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn. Depending on the area and the availability of food, black bears may become either diurnal or nocturnal. For example, if a bear lives near humans and has access to their garbage only during the daytime, it will seek food during the day and sleep at night, and vice versa. In the time that they are not roaming around or searching for food, black bears sleep in a bed that they make in the forest.

Black bears spend even more time looking for food in the summer and fall to prepare for hibernation in the winter. Technically, bears enter a state known as torpor, which is where they sleep through the winter but have the capability of waking up if disturbed. When an animal is a true hibernator, nothing will wake it from its sleep. When winter comes, they choose a den that serves as their protective place to sleep. Pregnant females are very particular when it comes to selecting a den because the cubs will be born while she is hibernating. She will wake up to give birth and then will return back to her state of torpor. Bears lose a large amount of their body fat during the winter, since they are inactive and usually do not eat. Males will sometimes find food to eat if they wake up, but pregnant females remain in their den for the entire winter. When the cold months of winter are over, the period of torpor ends and the bears begin their search for food once again. There is less food in the spring, but throughout the year, they eat as much as they can to fatten up and prepare for the following winter.

For more information, see the References and Further Reading page.