The Following Is By Jim Cardoza Massachusetts Wildlife
Bear Communication with Other Bears and Humans
Vocalizations - Black bears are not animals that vocalize often, but they do have some sounds that they make. Most of their vocalizations sound like grunts, moans or loud blowing which they use when interacting with other bears, or on occasion with humans. Cubs have a sound of contentment, similar to the purring of a cat, that they use when nursing. Cubs also have a distress call which sounds like loud bawling.
Body Language - When an adult bear is nervous or afraid it will blow loudly, often combining this behavior with teeth snapping. At the same time, the animal may lunge forward and slap the ground or a nearby object. Sometimes the bear may blow and bluff charge while squaring its lips. This behavior, which can be repeated, is the sign of a scared bear.
Eye Contact - Some researchers say that if a black bear is encountered in close proximity, initial eye contact should be made with the bear so that the person can read the bear's intentions. Look away from the bear if the bear appears threatened in any way (often indicated by ears laid flat against the head). While looking at the bear to determine its mood, back up quietly. This gives the bear room to make a hasty retreat.
Ear Position - A bear's ears can be an indicator of mood, also. A bear that feels threatened will usually flatten the ears back against its head. An aggressive bear having an altercation with another bear often displays ears in a forward position. Ears that are straight up are generally the sign of a bear with a normal temperament.
Scent Marking - Black bears are solitary animals, with the exception of sows with cubs, yet they have developed an intricate method of communicating with one another through various means, such as scent-marking vegetation. This behaviour broadcasts to other bears in the vicinity the status and sex of each animal, and during the mating season, the breeding condition of females. Interestingly, when a major food source is available, such as a field of ripe huckleberries, bears will communicate amongst themselves the site location. Large numbers of animals can congregate in these areas to share the bounty. Once the food is gone, the animals then disperse and return to their home ranges. Black bears will rub up against trees, straddle smaller shrubs and saplings, and arch their backs to mark overhanging branches, in order to leave scent. The males, in particular, will also leave urine marks. Female black bears have long vulva hair that is usually moist or wet with urine. This longer hair helps facilitate any markings that they make. During the breeding season, both sexes will do genital drags on the ground or on logs.
Tree Marking - Black bears also communicate by marking trees with their scent. They will stand on their two back legs and rub their back and shoulder area on trees in order to deploy scent and hair. Tree marking is done by bears of all ages. Often if a suitable tree can't be found, a bear will use a power pole or signpost to mark. At the same time, they may bite and claw trees, a behavior particularly prevalent by males during the breeding season, but done at other times of the year by both sexes. Bears mark trees in order to let other bears know they have passed through this particular area.
Bear Foot Impressions - Black bears tend to walk in their own tracks, so an area that is frequented by bears can have a trail of sunken footprints beaten into the forest floor from repeated and long-term use. They will also mark prominent bear sites such as a bite tree with sunken prints around the site. Researchers who have followed bears to record their daily activity have found that the bears will do a stiff-legged walk at these strategic locations, in order to enhance the marks left in the ground.
Like gorillas, black bears bolster their fearsome reputation with occasional blustery bluff charges. But also like gorillas, their ferocious displays seldom end in contact, and we are learning that black bears can be added to the growing list of animals that were once feared but are now known to be mostly gentle and timid. Their aggressive displays are more ritualized expressions of apprehension than threat. Once I understood black bear body language and vocalizations, I interpreted their aggressive displays in terms of their fear rather than my fear. I responded by improving my bear manners to avoid scaring them, and their fear turned into trust and trustworthiness. They were not the unpredictable animals I had always been warned about.
I came to trust certain wild bears to such an extent that I allowed dozens of inexperienced volunteers to walk and sleep with them day or night without a worry, even with mothers and cubs. Grandmothers, secretaries, and veteran hunters, alone or in pairs, logged hundreds of hours of observations of calm foraging behavior and tender care of cubs. The volunteers weren't panicked by occasional aggressive displays once they understood the behavior.
Our change in attitude toward black bears was not a matter of courage or recklessness. It was just a matter of keeping open minds and letting facts erase the misinformation we grew up with. Most bear stories are either exaggerations or involve incidents that are the rare exceptions. Warnings about bears usually don't distinguish between black bears and grizzly bears and are intended more to prevent liability problems than to truly educate the public. Museums typically contort the faces of mounted bears to show unnatural snarls. My lifetime of misinformation about the ferocity of bears seemed to be confirmed when I captured my first bears for study. From the confines of the live traps, they lunged and snapped and swatted. They were scared and had no way to retreat. We learned that even the most ferocious acting black bear would make a fast retreat if the live trap door is raised.
It remains a fact that wild black bears have killed nearly three dozen people across North America this century, but this is no longer a personal worry. My chances of being killed by a domestic dog, bees, or lightning are vastly greater. Being murdered is 90,000 times more likely. I feel safer deep in the woods with black bears than almost anywhere I can think of.
The timid, non-confrontational disposition that typifies black bears is the result of more than a million years of living among predators so powerful that black bears did not have a chance against them. Saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and short-faced bears kept black bears near trees and ready to run or climb. The short-faced bear was the largest mammalian predator that ever lived. Worse yet, it was a long legged bear that could easily run down any black bear foolish enough to stray into the open. Fortunately, for black bears, none of these huge predators could climb trees. Black bears that were alert and ready to retreat without question passed on their genes, creating the black bear of today.
The last of these prehistoric predators died out only about 10,000 years ago in North America, but the nonconfrontational attitude of black bears continued to serve it well as the next round of predators grizzly bears, timber wolves, and people spread across the continent from Alaska and the Bering Land Bridge.
Startled black bears climb or run away without even thinking of attacking like grizzlies sometimes do. Black bears stand their ground and bluff only where circumstances like cubs, extreme hunger, or habituation to people are concerned. Black bears rarely defend carcasses against people, unlike grizzlies which have a different evolutionary history.
A big revelation to me was how seldom mothers attack people in defense of cubs. Defense of cubs is primarily a grizzly bear trait. Seventy percent of grizzly caused deaths are by mothers with cubs, but I don't know of anyone being killed by a black bear mother.
Timid as black bears are on the ground, they sometimes show a more masterful side in trees. After all, none of the huge predators they evolved with could climb. Black bears sometimes kill each other by throwing opponents out of trees. The bear below has the advantage because the one above cannot easily hang on and face downward to fight back. The bear below seems so confident of its advantage that mothers have even come up trees after people who thought climbing was prudent.
If mother black bears with cubs are no problem, what's the story behind the killings and injuries we've heard about? I put these events into two categories offensive attacks, which are very rare, and defensive actions, which are easily avoided.
Offensive attacks include all the killings by black bears. These are generally unprovoked, predatory attacks. Most victims were eaten. Offensive, predatory attacks have almost always been in remote areas where the bears had little or no previous contact with people. Black bears that raid campgrounds or garbage cans are almost never involved. The rarity of the killings goes along with the non-confrontational, timid disposition that's been bred into black bears. But why approximately one black bear in 600,000 becomes a killer is a mystery. None of the killers had rabies. Some had common physical problems. There is no consistent explanation.
What can you do in the rare case of being attacked by a black bear? Fight back.
Will black bears attack if they sense a person is afraid? Most people who encounter black bears close-up ARE afraid and are not attacked. The idea that bears will attack if they sense we are vulnerable is an idea conjured up out of our own fear.
What are defensive actions? Those are fearful swats or nips toward people who behave like bad mannered bears. In developing methods for close-up studies and intentionally testing their reactions to common no-no's, we have been slapped occasionally, but we found that black bears are not prone to bite unless the person initiates the contact. No black bear has ever come after me and bit me. The slaps were not that damaging usually ripped clothing and welts on the skin nothing close to the folklore that a bear can disembowel a steer with a single swipe. Their claws are strong for climbing trees but not sharp for holding prey. Bears regard petting as an offensive act.
A defensive action might also result when a person uses food to lure a very hungry half- tame bear closer than it feels comfortable. The bear might feed calmly enough from the person's hand until the food is gone then suddenly feel crowded without the food distraction. Too fearful to turn its back and leave, it defensively slaps, giving itself an instant afterward to turn and run. In a related scenario, fearful people often jerk their hand back each time a bear opens its mouth to take food from it. Some bears just give up and leave, but very hungry bears sometimes try more quickly and bruise a finger.
The record is not as clean for black bears that come into campgrounds. They come because they are hungry, and they usually are not tame enough to feel truly comfortable near people. They occasionally cause minor injuries but frequently do property damage. In my experience, no matter how bold they seemed, they still recognized aggressive human behavior and always ran away when I yelled and ran toward them. For an even bigger response, watch their terror when a group yells and runs toward them.
If a bear seems to insist on staying for lunch, pepper spray in its eyes can change its mind. The spray is harmless. It's not teargas – not Mace. It's what mailmen have used on dogs for 30 years, and it works as well on bears as it does on dogs. They don't go away mad, they just go away usually fast.
As people learn more about black bears, old fears are being replaced with understanding. Black bear numbers are rebounding in many places as fewer people shoot bears for simply showing their faces around rural cabins. Bounties on bears and other predators have ended, which means not only that bears are no longer being killed for bounty, but that countless cubs are no longer being accidentally killed in foot traps set for other predators in summer. One problem is growing; people are moving into bear country in unprecedented numbers as baby boomers buy cabins and as people move away from the economic centers to do business via computers, modems, and fax machines. The attitude of this growing rural population will determine future black bear numbers.
Can we coexist with black bears? The residents of Hemlock Farms, Pennsylvania, suggest we can. Seven thousand residents share this seven square mile town with over 20 black bears. That's three bears per square mile a higher density than is found in any national park or national forest. The bears hibernate under people's porches and in their back yards, often without the people's knowledge says Dr. Gary Alt who is studying the situation. In the summer, the people have thousands of what are usually called "encounters." They see bears, but it's not a problem. They enjoy seeing bears.
All Diseases 2,300,000
Smoking-related illnesses 400,000
Homicides and suicides 49,216
Motor vehicle accidents 48,433
Drug overdose & chronic alcoholism 23,572
Choking on object or food 3,879
Falling down stairs 1,588
Falling off a ladder or out of bed 959
Bicycle accidents 762
Bathtub drowning 332
Deer-car collisions 130 (most deadly wild animal in the US is the white-tailed deer flying through the windshield)
Bee or wasp sting 66
Dog attacks 32 (4.7 million people are bitten/year, 750,000 require medical attention, 6,000 require hospitalization. 8% of all dogs will bite someone in their life.)
Crushing by human stampede 22
Pet tigers 2
Grizzly bears (all of North America) 2
Black bears (all of North America) .0001