Bird feeders provided tempting food source
By Michael Turton
“It was big — more than 300 pounds.” That’s how Nick Berger described the black bear that came face-to-face with him on the evening of Monday, Dec. 8, just outside his home on Old West Point Road in Garrison. The area is heavily wooded.
The bear had taken a liking to the bird feeders located near the Bergers’ home, destroying the feeders in the process of getting at the food they contained. Its appearance at around 9:30 that evening was the third time the animal had approached the Berger home — however this encounter would prove to be the most dramatic by far.
After the bear’s earlier visits, Berger had tried to discourage it from returning by placing a board with protruding, 2-inch spikes directly below one of the bird feeders — hoping that the sharp nails would convince the bear to leave the feeder alone. But the bear was unfazed. “It didn’t bother him. He stood right on the spikes,” Berger said.
Things only got worse. The bear not only came very close to the house — it was leaning against one of the windows.
Warning shot not enough
“I figured I’d yell at it,” Berger said, and at first that strategy seemed to work. Stepping outside, Berger hollered at the bear. It backed off by “about 7 or 8 feet.” But then it stopped. Armed with a shotgun, Berger decided to shoot a round into the air, thinking that the loud noise would startle the animal, hastening its exit.
Berger fired the shotgun into the air. The bear’s reaction had to have come as shock. “The darn thing charged me. It ran straight at me,” Berger recalled.
After its initial retreat, the bear had stood about 15 feet from Berger. Now it was coming at him — and very quickly closing that gap. It was an adrenaline rush “to say the least,” Berger said. “I was completely surprised. I didn’t have time to think twice.” He aimed and shot. “By the time I shot, the bear was only 6 feet away,” he said. The shot stung the bear. It ran into the woods and has not returned since.
Berger called the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department and a deputy was quickly dispatched to the house, though by then the crisis had ended.
Birdshot spared the bear
“I have no interest in shooting anything. I support hunting but I’m not a hunter,” Berger said. “I didn’t want to kill him.” To that end, he had purchased birdshot, shotgun shells filled with lightweight pellets and commonly used for hunting small game such as rabbits and pheasants but not powerful enough to kill a bear. Since the incident, Berger has also purchased rubber bullets in case the bear decides to return.
Berger said he had purchased a shotgun because, “If you live in the woods, you have to have something.” On three occasions he used the weapon to shoot rabid raccoons, one of which had actually chased him.
A much darker incident had also contributed to Berger’s decision to arm himself. “After the John Marcinak killing I figured I needed [a gun],” he said. Marcinak, owner of the Garrison Garage, was murdered outside his Route 9 business on New Year’s Eve, 2008.
Numbers may be increasing
In an email to The Paper, John Stowell, program coordinator at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center (TOEC), said that birdseed is a favorite food source for black bears, a species that he said is “skilled at manipulating feeders.” He advised homeowners that if problem bears are in an area prior to and after winter, their heavy sleep period, birdseed, dog food, household garbage and other food sources should be secured and removed from the exterior of homes.
According to Stowell, bears in western Putnam County are transient while parts of the county may have a resident population. “This pattern may soon change as black bear populations are increasing and ranges are expanding in southeast New York.”
He said that TOEC staff and other reliable sources have reported several sightings over the past two years. “Most sightings are in the late spring … when second-year bears are encouraged to leave the family structure and seek their own way — often wandering through residential areas.” As a result, he suggested that homeowners remove all bird feeders from around the home by April 1.
Stowell also had some advice for hikers or local residents who might encounter a black bear. “Do not run. Stand tall, hold your ground and make as much noise as possible,” he said.
The American black bear is found throughout most of North America including Alaska, much of Canada and the mainland U.S., and as far south as northern Mexico. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, there are 6,000 to 8,000 black bears in the state. Adult males average 300 pounds while females weigh in at about 170 pounds.