Thom Smith: Bears are still active; take precautions feeding birds

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Q: I thought my bird feeders would be safe from bears by now. Unfortunately, I was wrong and they ripped down my bird feeders on Thanksgiving. Shouldn't they be hibernating by now?

-Joyce, Sheffield

A: With the second bear hunting season in Massachusetts (Nov. 7 through 26) having just ended and the third season (Nov. 28 through Dec. 10) now underway, wildlife biologists must expect a number of bruins to be still active. Western District Supervisor Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Andrew Madden confirms my suspicion that isn't out of the ordinary to encounter bears now saying, "It is probable that some females have denned up for the winter, but I suspect that most males are still active. In areas where food is still available (acorns, etc.), both males and females may be active."

In Vermont, the bear hunting season ended in November, although with available food and relatively mild weather, there is little reason for all of the southern Vermont population to be denned this early.

However, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department website recommends that "you can put a birdfeeder out on Dec. 1, or after the onset of prolonged snowy winter weather. You should take a birdfeeder down by April 1 at the latest. If there is an early spring with melted snow and warm weather, it is a good idea to take your bird feeder down early. Bird seed is extremely high in fat and is very difficult for hungry bears to resist."

We read in Mass Wildlife's website (mass.gov/masswildlife), "In general, most bears are denned from mid-December through February. Although most bears in Massachusetts enter winter dens at some point, MassWildlife biologists have tracked bears that remained active for some or all of the winter if food is available. When bears find sources of food in residential areas, they tend to spend more time in neighborhoods where a meal may be easily found. This can result in a bear losing its fear of people (habituation) and in some cases, can lead to bears breaking into sheds, cages and even homes in search of food. You can help keep bears wild and wary of people by following the suggestions below. To be effective, it's important for entire neighborhoods to follow these guidelines. Share this information with your neighbors!"

Bears that are frequently fed, either directly or indirectly through bird feeders or garbage, may completely lose their fear of people. If a bear then behaves in a way that is a threat to public safety, it may be euthanized."

WILD BIRD FEEDING TIPS

- If you live in an area with bears, it is best to avoid bird feeders altogether. Bears finding a bird feeder, bird seed, corn or other bird food will often revisit that site, month after month, year after year.

- To get more for your money, read the label on the mixed seed bag. Some brands, especially the less expensive blends, use "fillers" that include golden and red millet, rapeseed and flax. Most of our native birds will pass them up or scatter them looking for white proso millet, sunflower seed and peanuts.

- While we might be drawn to purchasing a bag of cracked corn for wild birds, think twice. It is a favorite of house sparrows, cowbirds and starlings (also deer and bear) and none should be encouraged.

- To draw the greatest diversity offer black-oil sunflower seed (BOSS). While it will appear to be more costly, keep in mind that it is preferred by the black-capped chickadee, white- and red-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmouse and northern cardinal. At our feeders, even the ground-feeding slate-colored junco has learned to visit feeders for this nutritious food.

- When squirrels are a problem, keep in mind our gray squirrel is an Olympic jumper, able to leap six feet up to a feeder or launch themselves to a feeder 10 feet from a tree, post, fence or building. Keep this in mind while placing a feeder.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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