The black bear (Ursus americanus) is the most common and widespread species of
bear in North America. It is also the smallest of the three North American bear species.
North American Bears
Besides the black bear, the two other members of the bear family (Ursidae)
that live in North America are the brown bear and polar bear. Various subspecies of
brown bear (Ursus arctos)—some known as grizzly bears—live in the Rocky Mountains of
the United States, western Canada, Alaska, Europe, and Asia. The polar bear
(Ursus maritimus) lives throughout the Arctic.
Where Black Bears Live
Black bears live throughout Canada and Alaska and in at least 40 of the
conterminous United States (the lower 48 states), including southern Illinois and
northern Wisconsin and Michigan. The animals are less common in eastern and midwestern
states than in western states. Black bears are rare in Mexico.
Black bear habitats include forests, swamps, and mountains. Within these habitats,
black bears find shelter in dens under fallen trees, in hollow logs, in dense thickets of
shrubs, and in caves.
The Black Bear's Body
An adult black bear is usually five to six feet long from head to tail, and
two to three feet high at the shoulders. Black bears typically weigh from 200 pounds
to more than 500 pounds, with males (boars) weighing more than females (sows).
Black bears have feet that are plantigrade, meaning that they walk with both the heel
and toes touching the ground. These are the same kind of feet that humans have—and black
bears can stand and walk upright like humans for short distances. The claws on black bear
feet are short, curved, and sharp.
Black bears are mostly black in the eastern part of their range. However, many black
bears are cinnamon brown in the western part of their range, and some are even creamy white
(along the coast of British Columbia) or bluish-gray (in southeastern Alaska).
Black bears have an omnivorous (eating both plant and animal food) diet. Most of a
black bear’s food comes from plants, including berries and other fruits, acorns, nuts,
and grasses. Black bears can easily climb trees to reach high food.
Animal food eaten by black bears includes worms, insects, birds’ eggs, rodents and
other small mammals, salmon and other fish, and (rarely) young deer and moose. When
chasing prey, a black bear can maintain a speed of 30 miles per hour for short distances.
Black bears will also eat dead animals.
In national parks and national forests, some black bears have learned to accept
handouts from human visitors and to raid campgrounds and dumpsters for food. It is a
bad idea for people to feed bears, because some bear-human encounters have led to injuries
and even death for the humans.
Black bears are most active at dawn and dusk, though they are sometimes out and about at
mid-day. They normally live alone—except for breeding pairs in summer, mother bears with cubs,
and temporary groups in especially rich feeding areas. In such a group, bears may form a social
hierarchy, with dominant and submissive animals of the same sex.
Male black bears have large home ranges (areas in which they normally live) that overlap the
smaller home ranges of several females. Black bears mark their territories by clawing at and biting
trees and by leaving their scents on plants and rocks.
When black bears meet, they communicate with a variety of body signals, facial expressions,
and vocalizations. If a black bear feels threatened, it may flatten its ears, lower its head,
extend its lips, and let out a low moan or blow. If this behavior doesn’t make the threat go
away, the bear may lunge toward the threat—and, if necessary, attack. Black bears growl loudly
During the autumn, black bears consume large amounts of food and put on extra weight. This
is especially true in far northern areas, where winters are very long and cold. In these areas,
black bears remain inside their dens for most of the winter, sleeping and living off their fat
reserves for weeks or months at a time. Before emerging from its den in spring, a black bear may
lose more than 25 percent of its body weight.
Despite these long sleeps, many scientists do not consider black bears to be true hibernators.
That is because, unlike such true hibernators as bats and ground squirrels, black bears do not
experience dramatic drops in body temperature during their winter dormancy. In fact, black bears
can quickly become active again when they are disturbed or when there are warm-ups in the winter
In the more southern parts of their range, where winters are mild, black bears may be inactive
for only brief periods during winter.
Black bears usually breed in June or July. In January or February, the female black bear gives
birth to one to six (usually two) cubs in her winter den. The tiny cubs each weigh only about half
a pound and are blind and hairless. Their eyes open when they are about a month old.
The cubs stay with their mother for a whole year, learning to hunt and forage from her. Adult
male black bears play no role in raising the young. The cubs den with their mother through a
second winter. When spring arrives, the young bears go out on their own.
Black bears usually become sexually mature between the ages of two and four years. If their
nutrition is poor, however, some females may not begin breeding until they are as old as seven
or eight. After reaching sexual maturity, a female black bear typically gives birth every other
Most black bears are full grown by the time they are about four years old, though some males
may continue growing past age 10. Some black bears live more than 30 years in the wild, but most
die at an earlier age. Many deaths of black bears are caused by gunshot wounds, traps, and
Black bears are intelligent animals with large brains. Experiments have demonstrated that
black bears have excellent long-term memories. Biologists have also observed that black bears
are extremely curious about their surroundings and any new objects that they find. Black bears
are easily trained for performances in movies and other forms of entertainment.
Black bears have amazing navigational abilities that are little understood by scientists.
Some “nuisance” black bears (which got into such trouble as raiding garbage) have been trucked
almost 170 miles away from their home ranges by wildlife managers—only to somehow find their way
Although black bears are not as abundant as they used to be in the eastern and midwestern
states, these animals still exist in large numbers in nature. There are believed to be
approximately 900,000 black bears in North America, including 300,000 in the United States.
Hunting seasons in many states and Canadian provinces result in roughly 50,000 black bears
being killed every year.
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Bear article, 2008
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling
Kindersley Publishers, 2001
- Joseph A. Chapman, George A. Feldhamer, editors. Wild Mammals of North America. The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982
- William H. Burt, Richard P. Grossenheider. A Field Guide to the Mammals. Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1976