Thom Smith: No hibernation for bears, just a deep sleep

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Q. Last night (Nov. 18), I saw a young black bear running across the road in Windsor. Do you think it's in danger of not surviving the winter since it should have hibernated by now?

— Maria, Savoy

A. This is a difficult question. I will first say that bears do not hibernate, but do much sleeping, and it is a deep sleep that we call torpor. If need be, they can wake up far more quickly than a hibernator, and they usually do not den up this early. In recent years, wildlife biologists have noted more bruin activity during the winter months than in the past. More often, it is a lack of food than what Mother Nature gives them for the weather. I wonder if the primary reason is global warming or dumpsters and bird feeders, perhaps both. In true hibernation, as the woodchuck (groundhog) is famous for, body temperature drops considerably, and both breathing and heart rate slow down. Snap your fingers all you want, it won't wake one up; it takes time to bring a hibernator back to action.

A female bear carrying a baby will den up throughout the winter months while males will, during periods of warmer weather or hunger, become active. In recent years, some have remained active through much of the winter in some locations in Massachusetts. As mentioned, it is not as much the weather that causes a bear to den up as the lack of food. And bears that know the whereabouts of a dumpster may remain active longer.

As for a cub surviving without its mother the first two winters, prospects are not good. Some say that a healthy cub can survive by instinct and what they have already learned. One source I found indicated only one-half of all cubs survive the first six months. Under the best of conditions, cubs will stay with their mother during the first year and a half and re-enter the dens with their mother and siblings. When the cub leaves the den for the second spring, it will be self-reliant and on its own by early summer.

Q. This spring, I had a male cardinal that attacked the windows on the north side of my house from sunrise till sunset every day for almost two weeks. It only stopped when I put the screens on for the summer. I took the screens off last week and, lo and behold, he is back with a vengeance. No matter how many times I scare him away, he comes right back. I understand why he would attack another male (so he thinks) in the spring, but why would he exhibit the same actions now in the late fall.

— Gail, Worthington

A. Although this scenario sounds like the problem that is repeated in this column every breeding season, the answer suggests similar behavior, but for a different reason. During the spring or early summer, it is associated with breeding, and the male is protecting its mate and nest. The exception is like the cardinal you report that is keeping this behavior up all year long by maintaining its territory. (Or it needs a birdie shrink.) One suggestion to curtail this nuisance is to place an old mirror someplace in the yard where the bird will find it. Let him spend his time fighting the "new" phantom rival rather than the ones in your windows.

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I meant to send you this message two weeks ago. I was sitting on my deck, Googling "finches with crusty eyes." I've had a house finch around the last few days, which is sick. I was trying to see if I could do anything to help him. While I was reading about caring for sick birds, a hawk swooped down and made off with the little bird who had been sitting 6 feet away from me. I guess nature takes care of things on its own. I still feel bad, though.

Another comment:

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I live along the western shore of Pontoosuc Lake, and Sunday saw the pair of mute swans, and with them was a young one. And not far away from the swans was a small flock of mallard ducks.

A. I am both concerned and interested in following the introduction of mute swans in The Berkshires, northern Connecticut, southern Vermont as well as bordering New York state. Sightings with locations (and closest landmark to differentiate between pairs) dates and any comment you want to include, you can email me at

Over the past couple of years, they have made an impression on several lakes in The Berkshires. I have watched them on Pontoosuc Lake and the big pond at Hoosic Lake (Cheshire Reservoir). One cygnet was still with the pair this fall as mentioned above. I haven't followed the other pair that I last saw on the ice last winter at Hoosic Lake.

While many think of these white birds as gorgeous and welcome them, there is more than beauty to consider!

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Mute swans have been naturalized, first along our shores, and after an apparent mandate, have been expanding their range westward. I cannot help but wonder if those we now see regularly in western Massachusetts came from northern Connecticut or adjacent New York state.

I have yet to find a state that is in favor of mute swan populations:

Michigan Natural Resources reports, "One of the world's most aggressive waterfowl species, especially while nesting and raising their young, mute swans drive out native waterfowl and other wetland wildlife with their hostile behavior. Mute swans will chase native breeding birds from their nests. Some birds at risk include common loons and trumpeter swans, Canada geese and native ducks."

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation says, "Mute swans can cause a variety of problems, including aggressive behavior toward people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality, and potential hazards to aviation."

The Connecticut Audubon Society (in 2007) asked the state Department of Environmental Protection "to remove the swans from critical marine habitats, contending that the graceful birds are invaders causing serious environmental harm."

According to the Connecticut Environmental Protection, "Mute swans can cause a variety of problems, including aggressive behavior toward people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, and degradation of water quality. Many biologists and conservationists also consider the mute swan to be an ecologically damaging exotic species."

I could go on and will include MassWildlife's opinions in the near future.


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