Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Black Bear
Nature Bulletin No. 286-A  December 9, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The most amusing and human-like of all our American wild animals is the Black Bear. Slow, clumsy and loose-jointed in appearance, with a shambling gait, he can be very swift and nimble. Like any good clown he is also a good acrobat with a fine sense of balance and timing. He is a great climber in spite of his bulk. Shrewd and droll, he is very popular in menageries and as a performer in circuses and side shows because he learns tricks easily. He can stand on his hind legs to wrestle, box, dance, or beg for food and, occasionally, one becomes a graceful artist on roller skates. They love applause.

Some bears are the largest of all flesh-eating mammals. They have robust bodies, short stubby tails and stout thickset legs. Each foot has five toes with heavy claws and, in walking, the heel touches the ground -- flat-footed -- like the human foot. A dead bear, skinned, has such a startling resemblance to a human body that the Indians begged his pardon for killing him. The black bear is smaller than the grizzly, the polar bear and the giant Alaskan bears. Originally it was found throughout most of the wooded parts of the continent but they have been exterminated in many regions.

Some of them are really black; others may be brown, yellowish, silvery, or a reddish cinnamon, and a black mother may have a blonde, a redhead and a brunette in the same litter. When grown they are commonly about 5 feet long, stand about 25 inches high at the shoulder and weigh 200 to 300 pounds, although some old males have weighed 500 pounds, The claws of the forefeet, which Indians prized for necklaces, are curved and longer than the hind claws. The hides, with long moderately soft hair, were used as bedding by the Indians, as coats by the pioneers, and for bearskin shakos in the British army.

In autumn, when fruits, acorns, nuts and starchy roots are plentiful, black bears put on a thick blanket of fat and their coats become glossy. When cold weather comes they get drowsy and seek a winter den which may be a cave, a hollow tree, a leaf-lined hole dug beneath a big fallen log. In the far north they hole up from October until April or May. In the south they may retire for only a few days at a time. They do not really hibernate like the woodchuck. Their temperature remains normal, they breathe like a person in deep slumber, and rouse easily if disturbed. More than one hunter has broken through a crust of snow and landed on top of a very lively bear.

The tiny cubs -- blind, hairless and toothless -- are born in late winter, There are usually two or three but sometimes only one and occasionally four. Weighing only about a half pound at birth, after six weeks a cub weighs two pounds, is covered with soft down, its eyes are open and it has begun to cut teeth, By spring they are able to toddle about and soon are romping and wrestling together. The mother is a stern teacher and cuffs them frequently. The father is not permitted near them until they are 18 months old and sent out on their own.

Although most of its food is plant material, the black bear eats mice, squirrels, gophers, fish, frogs, crickets am a wide variety of other animals. They tear rotten logs apart for grubs and anthills for the ants which they lick off their paws. They love sweets and it is comical to see one, whimpering and trying to protect its face, scooping out the grubs and honey from a hornets' nest or beehive. Sometimes they raid a farm for poultry and livestock, especially pigs. They will attack a man when wounded, cornered, or to protect their cubs.

Those are the bear facts.

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