Don't Panic

Thom Smith | NatureWatch: A little bear etiquette goes a long way


Q. I've always heard about bears, "Don't bother them, and they won't bother you." Is that really true? I have a friend, whose backyard abuts the woods, who took a video of one from her deck. If we see a bear, should we go in our house? Walk away? Run? And how about that nice photo of that bobcat in today's newspaper? Same rules as bears? (My neighbor has seen one sitting in his backyard near the woods.)

— Bob, Williamstown

A. I would not want to be quoted saying anything about don't bother this animal or that. I use to say a common garter snake was "harmless" until giving a snake talk at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, back in my high school days and it back-fired. Shortly after telling a group of Girl Scouts the snake I was holding was "harmless," it bit me.

As far as our black bear is concerned, I try to follow these rules:

Rule 1 — Don't panic about a black bear encounter; consider yourself lucky, stop and slowly retreat. Never run from a bear; you will lose. If in the woods, never climb a tree. If in your yard, go into the house, slowly walking away. Make yourself appear as large as you can, if wearing a jacket, for instance, open it up. Talk to the bear.

Rule 2 — Never look at it eye-to-eye. Keep your head down, look away, but do discreetly keep an eye on it to ascertain its attitude. Don't challenge it, you will lose. Talk to it gently, so that it knows you are human, not prey.

Rule 3 — If there have been visits in the past from a neighborhood bruin, learn all you can about them. Go to your fish and wildlife site. In Massachusetts and nearby states, you can get general information from If a bear is in a populated area, call the nearest Wildlife District Office to report the sighting and get advice. In Massachusetts, contact the Environmental Police radio room at 800-632-8075.

Follow these suggestions, and you will be more apt to be struck by lightning than attacked by a black bear — and the deer tick is more apt to infirm you than a black bear. However, be especially careful if there are cubs nearby; a mother will defer to protecting her cubs. Walk away sideways, being less threatening, and don't stare, but keep an eye on her. Again, talk gently to her.

To keep bears away from your yard, remove bird feeders, wash them out and store until late fall. Use diligence in storing kitchen scraps and rubbish. Secure the compost pile. And never intentionally put food out for the bears or attempt to attract them. A bear being fed kibble dog food from a back porch, for instance, will become to rely on it, and I fear the day when the family doing the feeding misses a day or two. Will the bear break into the house to help itself? Or visit neighbors?

Bobcats are far shyer and avoid people. Rarely, a bobcat can become aggressive, and bobcats and most other larger mammals with rabies can attack humans. Should you encounter a bobcat, keep as much distance between you and the animal as possible and protect children and pets. Avoid running away because that could trigger a pursuit response.


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Q.  A friend called me for information about what to do after finding a nest of baby cottontails in her children's outdoor playhouse. The nest has been disturbed, and what should be done. Any suggestions?

— Lisa, Holyoke

A. Keep pets and children away for a few days and then check again. My guess is that a mom who has not abandoned the babies and nest will remove the young to a safer place. Clear up the general area and disinfect the floor. Then keep the door closed.


Q. Are there an unusual number of blue jays in the Berkshires this year? We live in Dalton and, most years, we will have one or two hanging around the yard. This year, it seems we have a flock. At one point, there were 15 of them in the yard for several days. We are now seeing about a half-dozen. It seems rather strange.

— Robert, Dalton

A. In recent years, I have noticed fewer blue jays, In fact, fewer birds in general. My thought is the larger number of jays can be attributed to migration. If a pair chooses your neighborhood to nest, you will probably be back to seeing one or two unless they drop by with the youngsters.

They are migratory birds, although some are permanent throughout the year and may be seen at bird feeders during the winter months and nesting here during the summer months. (Of course, without having banded birds to confirm it, we cannot be sure if a pair we see in the winter is the same pair we see in the summer or different individuals altogether).

Their habits are sort of hit-or-miss and some individuals will migrate one year and stay North the next winter. I don't think anyone has figured out their schedule.

When you have residents, listen to their calls. They are fair mimics and seem to be best at sounding like hawks. And it can get awfully confusing when a pair of mockingbirds, catbirds, blue jays and starlings, all mimics, are in the same neighborhood.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' comments and questions. Email him at


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