Roots and Shoots: A Tale of Birds and Bears

By Pamela Doan

After two weeks of writing about bird-friendly habitats, I had to follow-up with a cautionary tale from a recent real life experience. Whether it seems that way or not, Philipstown is bear country. We share our woods and rivers with black bears that are native to the area and increasingly crowded with us as more land is developed. It’s inevitable that there will be interactions between bears and people occasionally and hopefully, both parties can come away without harm.

Last week we awoke to a surprise visit from a black bear at my house. First, we noticed that the bird feeder pole was bent over and pushed to the ground. The feeder that had been attached to it was down the hill and the seed was scattered. A wire cage holding a suet cake was still attached, though, and the pole with the hummingbird feeder was untouched.

An hour later after a little excitement and much speculation about what had visited us overnight, the pole-bending bear appeared outside the window to finish its meal. A yell raised everyone in the house to see it, spooking the bear and it ran. Poor bear was just trying to finish breakfast.

We should have learned our lesson about bears and bird feeders, but didn’t bring the sugar-water filled hummingbird feeder in for two days and woke up on another morning to find that pole bent to the ground and the glass jar emptied. The bear had returned for a sugary snack. Now we’re contributing to bear obesity.

The Department of Environmental Conservation must get a lot of queries about these types of situations because their website has an entire page devoted to the dangers of bears and bird feeders. The DEC’s information states that 80% of bear and human encounters involve bird feeders at certain times of the year.

The bear didn't stay to pose for this photo. (Photo by P. Doan)

The bear didn’t stay to pose for this photo. (Photo by P. Doan)

Bears have a primarily vegetarian diet and seeds and nuts in a bird feeder are too good to pass up. When these feeders attract bears into yards and near homes, problems can arise. It’s pointless to try to bear-proof a bird feeder. It just makes it more of a challenge, guaranteeing that the bear will spend more time in your yard. The DEC warns bird lovers to remove feeders after April 1 every year since bears come out of hibernation in March and will be on the move and hungry.

Frank Mami, an employee at Fahnestock State Park, said that they have 2-3 bears in the area and warn campers to take precautions. If someone encounters a bear, he said, “They should just make noise. We yell and clap our hands. Bears are timid and they’ll run away.” He thought the bear in my yard was probably passing through and looking for food since it will hibernate soon in November.

In the park, garbage cans are strategically placed far from campsites to avoid drawing bears near areas where people are gathering. Mami said, “People are constantly moving the trash cans closer to their campsites. They don’t seem to get it.” I expect an encounter with a huge black bear like the one outside my window might change their minds. On its second visit, the bear knocked over our recycling can, too.

It’s illegal to feed bears in New York and the DEC can issue citations to people who inadvertently feed bears with bird feeders, too. Attracting a bear to residential areas with bird feeders can start a dangerous pattern for the animal where it becomes acclimated to being around people and then will browse for other food sources like garbage cans and compost piles. DEC officers respond to complaints about dangerous bears and in the worst-case scenario, the animal is killed. Bears can be protected when we take actions to minimize and reduce the possibility of an encounter. That means no bird feeders or picnic baskets, Boo Boo.

To enjoy bird watching in the yard and continue to attract birds but not bears, turn to other methods of landscaping as I outlined in Roots and Shoots in the October 24 edition of The Paper/Philipstown.Info. Native plants that bear fruit, berries, and cones can achieve both means.

While bears are hibernating in the winter, it’s safe to put up bird feeder again. Personally, I’m going to wait until December just to be sure.

2 thoughts on “Roots and Shoots: A Tale of Birds and Bears

  1. Last week we woke to our three hanging bird feeders torn from their lines, four suet cages strategically opened by bending, and our composting bin torn apart. The next morning Shane Whitefeather, a local mountain scout and natural phenomena specialist, inspected the site, finding bear tracks, a place where the bear rolled, and a nice deposit of bear scat, showing plenty of seed half-digested. We called neighbors to alert them and have taken our bird feeders in for the month – we’ll put them back up after Thanksgiving. Thanks for these reminders.

  2. Holy smoke(y)s! This happened to my bird-feeder pole in my Beacon backyard, something I attributed to malicious kids — I knew a deer falling into it couldn’t bend it over that far. But bears in downtown Beacon was not something I even dared consider. Yikes…!