Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Debunking myths about bear winter hibernation

Q: I was surprised returning home on Christmas Eve to see what I was sure was bear jumping off my back deck. Next morning, I saw that my suet feeder was gone, but not the bird seed I threw out on a shelf there. I replaced the [suet] feeder, but it too was shortly gone. I thought bears certainly would be in hibernation, especially in this frigid weather. What about their hibernation now? I've stocked up on suet feeders.

— Katherine, Becket

A: Not long ago, I addressed bear activity in winter (Berkshire Eagle edition, Dec. 17, 2017), and here are a few debunked myths I mentioned:

- Males and young unmated females are more active during a warmer-than-normal winter and apparently, if hungry enough, will venture our regardless of conditions. Females carrying young do not prowl about.

- Black bears do not hibernate in the true sense, but they sleep soundly and have no problem waking up from time to time and especially so if they know of food sources. (This bear may have stumbled across your feeder on Christmas Eve, but trust me, it will not forget.)

- Rather than stocking up on suet feeders, you will want to either stop feeding or place the feeder where it shouldn't be reached except by birds and maybe squirrels. Our suet hangs from a second-story window. I can't say if it is 100-percent safe, but I have never heard of a bear scaling the side of a house.


I saw your request [for information on nature occurrences in southern Vermont] in The Brattleboro Reformer. I also get a Recorder from a friend and enjoy reading your bird articles. I love watching the birds at my feeders in West Halifax, Vt., and have been for 30-plus years.

I have a rufous-sided towhee here this winter. I first saw one in the state of Georgia years ago. I always thought of it as a southern bird, but he seems to be doing OK in the snow and frigid temps. It is a pretty bird.

The bird count was way down all summer and fall, but after the first snow it picked up, thankfully. I have the usual birds — chickadees, cardinals, tons of juncos this winter, sparrows, titmice, hairy woodpecker and a downy, goldfinch and, lately, some purple finch. Today, I saw one starling. Also a mile from home, I saw a robin. I report the birds at my feeders twice a month to Project Feeder Watch. If I have any unusual birds, I will email you. Thank you for the great articles.

— Joan, West Halifax, Vt.

The rufous-sided towhee is now called the eastern towhee and, believe it or not, it is in the sparrow family. It is, indeed, a southern bird year-round. Up here in the north, it is mostly a summer bird, although there are winter records. A week ago, a flock of roughly seven to 10 robins arrived at our winterberry shrubs in Pittsfield, and within four days, they needed to resort to eating the fallen berries before moving to a crab apple tree also in our yard. Robins, cedar waxwings and bluebirds are all seen during winter months, but I suspect are not the individuals we see during the summer.


Check with your local nature center or bird club for Great Backyard Bird Count activities closest to you or how you can become involved by visiting

Cherylene T. Czaja Hillard writes, "The Great Backyard Bird Count, (GBBC) was created in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies of Canada. It was the first online citizen-science project that collected data on birds. It has become a world-wide event. More than 130 countries have participated in past counts, recording over 5,689 species of birds and more than 162,000 checklists. More than 300,000 nesting attempts have been recorded, 7.5 million bird observations on eBird, with more than 200,000     

"As ambassador to Cornell University Great Backyard Bird Count, and Audubon and Bird Studies of Canada, I would like to ask your support in bringing awareness to this worthwhile event. This year ushers in our 21st year. The event runs Feb. 16 through 19. Scientists and researchers have expanded their knowledge base through these counts. We could never have documented this vast amount of data without citizen-scientists. We need the help of concerned citizens to do this. The complexity of distribution and movement, pose far-reaching questions leading to investigation and research. We ponder the effects of global warming and climate, loss of habitat, El Nino's, deforestations, as well as effect on water, earth, and air pollution. In studying the patterns of large flocks of wintering birds we can [also] assess bird diseases such as Bird flu and West Nile in various regions.

"We are asking young and old alike to join us Feb. 16-19. You can count birds from any location. Tally each species of bird you see and the number of them, and record it on our website: / You can count one day or all four. If you haven't participated since our merger with eBird in 2013, you will be asked to create a free online account. If you have an account, just login with your name and password. Participate in our photo contest. And don't forget to download our posters and eCards for friends."


- I will be handing out flyers and answer any questions on birding for those walking and birding the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail from 10 a.m. to noon Friday, Feb.16, at the Berkshire Visitors Center at 3 Hoosac St., Adams

- There will [also] be a bird count contest sponsored by the GBBC. All children ages 3 to 12 are eligible. Information on how to join the contest can be found at the North Adams Public Library, 74 Church St., North Adams, Mass.

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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