Many homeowners enjoy feeding birds, but in bear country the practice often comes with unintended consequences, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Wildlife managers and conservation officers know that the majority of bear-related calls involve bears destroying birdfeeders after homeowners underestimate how attractive bears find birdfeeders as a food source.
“Bears use a feeding strategy called ‘high-grading’ where they seek out rich patches of concentrated food, and skip over places with low food density,” said Dave Garshelis, DNR bear research project leader. “They also have excellent memories about where they’ve found good sources of food. A birdfeeder is a bountiful source of high-calorie food.”
All about the calories
A well-stocked birdfeeder could supply more than 10,000 calories in one place with little effort. Compared to the energy it would take to obtain the same number of calories from scattered patches of wild berries, nuts or insects, bears find it much more efficient to feed at a birdfeeder, especially if the food there is continually replenished.
In late summer, bears transition into a state of rapid weight gain that prepares them for six months of hibernation. During this time bears’ caloric needs increase and they can gain three to five pounds of body fat every day, a feeding pattern they continue until shrinking day length and disappearing foods signals them to begin hibernating.
“If a bear found an easy meal at your birdfeeder or trash can, chances are it will remember how to find your yard again. And you can plan on that bear and possibly others coming back,” Garshelis said.
One bear could mean several bears
Bears have an innate preference for wild foods, but if frequently rewarded with highly-concentrated human foods, they may grow to prefer that, and then seek out such foods. Mothers then pass this feeding behavior on to their offspring. In a controlled feeding trial, researchers observed that most bears chose black oil sunflower seeds above acorns once they had the chance to try them.
Bears so conditioned sometimes become very bold. Some have been known to open unlocked car doors, enter open windows and patio doors of homes, push through screen doors, enter livestock pens, raid gardens and stir compost piles – anywhere food is left unattended and unsecured. Such bears become hard to scare away, because they are not only intent on getting the human-related foods, they have experienced no negative consequences from being near people. When behavior escalates to this point, people often become fearful of bears and perceive them as a safety threat.
The DNR does not trap and relocate bears because it is nearly impossible to find a release site in Minnesota where a food-conditioned, traveling bear wouldn’t find another house to frequent. Relocating a bear can also put it in conflict with other resident bears, or disrupt its ability to find natural food sources in a new location. The DNR discontinued the practice of trapping and relocating bears in 1999, and relies instead on the public removing attractants.
Avoid creating a problem
DNR wildlife managers and conservation officers recorded 700 to 900 bear complaints per year by the public in each of the past three years – a slight increase over the past decade. Homeowners most commonly reported damage to birdfeeders and trash cans, and an associated fear of bears being too close to their house.
Homeowners are advised to remove the source of the attractant to solve the problem. For example, the solution might be as easy as taking in birdfeeders in the late afternoon. In most cases, removing the food source removes the problem but it may take the bear a few days to leave the area. This is a simple solution, requiring a slight modification in human behavior in order to change the bear’s behavior, or better yet, to prevent a bear from becoming food conditioned in the first place, and possibly saving its life.
Homeowners can sometimes become frustrated with that simplistic advice and perceive it as a lack of action on the part of wildlife staff. But with relocation not an option, the remaining option is killing the animal – a result wildlife managers and most of the public prefer to avoid.
The DNR offers practical tips about avoiding bear conflicts at home and while camping at mndnr.gov/livingwith_wildlife/bears.