Bears

April 18, 2006

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  What Do Bears Eat?

Bears must eat constantly during spring, summer, and fall and they'll eat an amazing variety of food. Although they are often portrayed as ferocious carnivores, bears are omnivores which means they eat both meat and plants.

Black bears can digest plant fibers better than other meat-eaters, but they don't possess the efficient multi-chambered stomachs of elk and other herbivores. For this reason, they must eat a lot of plants to obtain enough nutrition.

In spring, bears search for newly emerged grasses and forbs (broadleaved plants) in the early morning and late afternoon. To conserve energy, they rest a lot.

Their rate of feeding increases as food quality increases. In summer they will eat throughout the day as they search for nutritious food such as berries. By eating the most when the best quality food is available, bears quickly fatten up for their coming hibernation.

Black bears seldom hunt and chase down big animals for food. The only time black bears are likely to search for meat is in the spring, when plant food is still scarce. During this time, bears may look for newborn deer, elk, and moose.

What Black Bears Eat

  • Horsetails & grasses
  • Berries: chokecherry, huckleberry, & buffaloberry are favorites forbs (broad-leaned plants)
  • Aquatic plants such as lilies
  • Elk & Moose calves,
  • Deer fawns
  • Ground squirrels & other small rodents
  • Ants,
  • Wasps,
  • Bees (adults & larvae)
  • Carrion
Although many people believe that fawns and calves have no scent, they probably have a faint odor. Humans aren't able to detect it, but bears with their super sense of smell can pick it up.

Young Black Bear on LogAt any time of year, bears are far more likely to use their teeth and curved front claws to rip open a log full of swarming ants and lap up the insects by the hundreds. Their curved claws also come in handy for climbing trees to reach nuts and fruits that deer and grizzly bears can't reach.

When a black bear finds a patch of berries, it will spend hours delicately plucking the berries from the bush. It doesn't have dexterous fingers as humans have to pluck fruit. Instead, it uses its flexible lips. A bear's lips can bend and grasp much the way a monkey's prehensile tail can grasp a limb. With these "prehensile" lips, a bear can grasp berries one by one.
Close up look at huckleberriesBerries provide bears with vital nutrition. During a good berry year, bears thrive. But if the crop fails, as it does periodically, bears may have difficulty finding enough food. Near the town of Council, for example, bears eat eight kinds of berries. If one crop fails, they can find other berries to eat. But near Priest Lake, bears depend on only three kinds of berries. If huckleberries fail, bears have difficulty finding enough to make up for the loss. This can be a critical issue for young bears because they depend on berries to build up their reserves for the winter. If they don't have enough food to eat in the late summer and fall, their chances of surviving the winter are reduced. Berry crop failures also affect female bears' ability to produce young the following winter.

People who portray bears as roly- butterballs haven't seen a scrawny bear emerging from its den in the spring. During hibernation, a black bear may lose 30-50 % of its fat reserves. This weight loss continues in the spring because food is scarce. When the summer berry season arrives, they finally begin gaining weight again. They repeat the same pattern annually gaining weight in the summer and fall, then losing it in the winter and early spring. Females that are rearing cubs may lose weight the entire year that they are nursing their young.


Many thanks to Idaho Fish and Game and Project WILD for all of their help in this project. Information for this site developed from "WILD ABOUT BEARS," and is copyrighted by Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Idaho Project WILD. Permission obtained and granted to use this material for
educational purposes.
Photographic images were provided by the
Department of Fish and Game and various other sources
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