Thom Smith | NatureWatch: No rhyme or reason to bears' denning ritual

Q: How will climate change with warmer winters affect bears' pregnancies if they do not hibernate? Aren't the young born before mama leaves the den in the spring?

— Norma, Pittsfield

A: You are correct, pregnancy and denning go hand-in-hand for black bears. But that is not always true for the rest of the bear population. Males and young unmated females are more active during a warmer-than-normal winter, a winter when food is not as scarce. During winters with extended warm spells, we are more apt to see these bears out of season. Repeated refilling seed feeders that have been emptied by a bear, leaving rubbish containers with edible refuse outside, dumpsters unlocked or, God forbid, putting out kibble for them, or storing birdseed in a container a bear can easily access, will almost always insure winter visitation, especially in urban areas.

I'm often asked when will bears go into, or are coming out of hibernation. The answer is that it isn't really true hibernation, as a woodchuck would, for instance. They are heavy sleepers, Here in the Berkshires, where we think of bears coming out of their dens between early March and April, we may find more individuals wandering about hungry in late February, or less commonly active all winter, something that is more common in the warmer Connecticut Valley. If it is more abundant food or the weather that brings them out is difficult to say with certainty, but food seems to be the primary factor.

The more remote a bear lives, the more certainty of its denning from November to December through early March to mid-April, although not a guarantee.

Denning can be a so-so proposition for some males. A few years ago, I was told of a bear that had denned in a tree cavity, with its back exposed for all to see, including me. They are also content denning in a brush pile, beneath fallen trees, piles of rocks and I'm told a few might simply curl up of the bare ground and wait to be buried with snow. Again, a female with cubs is almost always found in a cave or facsimile.

Q: For the first time ever, we had juncos visiting our small hopper feeder with mixed seed. I have never seen this before as they always have looked for seed on the porch or the ground. Does this happen regularly and I have missed it, or is it something they have learned?

— Maryanne, Pownal, Vt.

A: I believe it is something that they have seen other birds doing and, being curious, discovered that all seed isn't on or near the ground. For several years, I would scatter seed on our deck for the juncos. Last winter or the winter before, I didn't, and began seeing a few of them at our sunflower heart tube feeder.

Q: Going into my backyard is like walking on a waterbed with the ground sinking beneath me with every step. I am certain the problem is voles eating the grass roots. They are also in my raised blueberry bed and I am guessing they are dining on those root systems. They got into the flower beds and my tulips and day lilies were decimated. Any suggestions on how to control these pests?

—Vic, Pittsfield

A: There are four different moles found in Massachusetts and Southern Vermont with the more common being the meadow vole, the one that raises havoc in our yards, and the uncommon pine vole.

Moles tunnel underground, but the meadow vole tunnels on the surface, often making tunnels through the grass beneath the snow. So your waterbed yard may be caused by moles. This happens in parts of our yard, not to the extent your yard has. Voles are sometimes incorrectly called meadow mice or field mice, which they are not. A vole is slightly larger than a house mouse with a short tail, short ears, small eyes and a stockier body — and they are vegetarian. If there are signs of activity around blueberry bushes or flower garden, you might take off the snow around them and scatter a vole repellent. Other than that, I have no suggestions. Maybe Ron Kujawski or Thomas Christopher, Berkshire Eagle garden correspondents, can help

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Write to him in care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, Mass. 01201.


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