Thom Smith | Nature Watch: Tips for handling bear encounters


"Aren't they cute?' says one neighbor to another as they discuss the two black bear cubs frolicking in their adjoining back yards that border a strip of woodland. They wonder where mama is. She isn't far, and if these ladies leave the juveniles alone, she may remain hidden as she scrounges around looking for an easily accessible snack in a nearby trash can. If left alone, bears are, in general, pretty safe neighbors. It's all up to us. The key to getting along is leaving each other alone. And not feeding them! The advent of dumpsters and communal trash cans has encouraged visits to neighborhoods. One easy step to lessen attraction is to put out trash and garbage for pick up the morning of municipal pickup, not the night before. It is not a fool-proof plan, but a move in the right direction, along with bear-proofing dumpsters. Those that become a nuisance or aggressive should be reported.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department advises "In general, when you encounter a black bear you should:"

- Remain calm.

- Ensure the bear has an escape route.

- Back away when possible.

- If attacked in a building or tent, immediately fight back.

- Do not run from a bear.

- Do not climb trees to escape a bear.

- Do not feed bears.

(The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife offers similar advice.)

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The advice from both is similar and sound, and both suggest talking calmly while backing away and while bears do not yet know English words, both suggest saying "Hey bear." I have always been told to make yourself look bigger (if you have a shirt or jacket, open it, if not raise your arms, wave a hat and don't look eye-to-eye. It is especially important to reinforce to children "do not run or climb a tree." Never approach a bear! Treat them with respect. When necessary, black bears can run 32 miles an hour and climb trees nearly as fast as a squirrel. Can you or your children? Old-time outdoors people have told me to keep a whistle handy and one who spends much time in back country doing plant and animal surveys would carry two manageable-size sauce pans that would he would keep at the ready to clang together.

Although they are less commonly active during the day — mostly at dawn and dusk — they are seen at any hour, both day and night. I shudder when I hear of homeowners taking in their bird feeders in the evening. Once a bear locates a bird feeder or a pet's food dish outside, they won't forget.

Our daughter, who lives on the outskirts of Holyoke, called the authorities last week after a bear got between her and her two young boys and their house. She was advised get an air horn if this becomes a regular occurrence. (My thought was to set up a sensor connected to such a device aimed at the path the bear usually takes. I know it would scare the daylights out of me, but then I am not a bear.) It would be far less expensive and far safer than an electric fence. I have read an "Electrified, six-foot-high, seven-wire fencing has been used successfully to keep bears away from crops, but this technique may be cost prohibitive for the small grower. In order for an electric fence to be an effective deterrent to bears, the fence must provide a shock of 5,000 to 6,000 volts."

At this season, when crops and fruits are ripe, there is an attraction to yards even if table scraps and bird feeders are removed from the scenario.

Conflicts between people and bears are becoming more commonplace and continue to be so as they increase about 8 percent annually. Education is important and our motto should be "Don't feed the bears."

BIRDING AT THE MOUNT                                    

Birding in the Berkshires at The Mount will be held 8 to 10 a.m. every Tuesday in September. The natural wooded paths, open gardens and groomed lawns offer an opportunity to hear and see a variety of wild songbirds, that include in season, bobolinks in the meadows, vireos singing on the hottest days, and warblers, sparrows, tanagers and more in the cool woods. Birds are still plentiful enough, although much quieter.

Registration required. One trip is moderate, being moderately paced, and the other intermediate, a vigorously paced walk down to Edith Wharton Park and Laurel Lake. For more information and to register, call 413-551-5100. The walks are free and binoculars and bird books will be provided by Mass Audubon, but feel free to bring your own. Proper hiking attire and footwear, bug spray and water bottles are highly recommended.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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