By Izzy Hendershot (age 7) • Notes in italics by Dad

We hopped in the car and started off. The first stop (two hours later, in Blowing Rock) was the hotel. We unpacked and then we got back in the car and went to Grandfather Mountain. We walked across the “Mile High Bridge.” It was a little scary. From the bridge we saw lots more mountains. I got to climb some boulders. I touched the “No visitors beyond this point” sign.

Grandfather Mountain is estimated to be 730 million years old. The rock beneath, the Wilson Gneiss Formation, is 1.2 billion years old. Grandfather was formed by the collision of the North American and African continents. Millions upon millions of years of weathering created a “geologic window” where younger, harder rock is left exposed above the older rock.

After that we hopped back in the car to see the animal habitat and nature museum. There were rocks, water and bears. The black bears were just waking up from their winter hibernation.

Next we got to see cougars. They were running and chasing each other. One of the cougars pooped in a hole, just like a cat at a litter box. We also saw a bald eagle that had been hurt by a gun.

Then we went into the museum and we got to take a look around. We got to see some cool crystals and rocks. We saw the biggest amethyst on the North American continent. It weighed 162 pounds!

This crystal was discovered in 1972 by Lester Sigmon in the Reel Mine at Iron Station, N.C. The crystal, 2 feet by 2 feet by 1 foot high, is thought to be the finest amethyst cluster ever discovered in North America.

We also saw a model of a salamander that was four times its actual size. Then we got to see some other things and the gift store, which had lots of stuffed animals.

We made it back to the entrance of Grandfather Mountain and waited for our friend Carol who was visiting from China. Cars passed by and none of them were Carol’s. Finally we saw her. When she arrived Grandfather Mountain had closed. Next, everybody, daddy, Carol, mommy and Carol’s sister, Nic, talked for a while.

They decided we would go to a restaurant together. I got to ride in Carol’s car to the restaurant. Nic reminded me of a student teacher at school, Ms. Hoyle.

We went to restaurant in Banner Elk called Sorrento’s Bistro. The waitress brought Maddy, my sister, and me a ball of dough to play with. Then we got to eat yummy pizza.

After we were done eating, my family went back to the hotel. Our hotel room number was 115. We went for a swim, then to bed.

The next morning, after breakfast, we went back into the pool. After that we packed up to get ready to go home. We got to have lunch with Carol, in Boone. That’s where App State is.

Then we started for home. On the way home we saw two deer run right in front of a car and almost get hit.

We started down the mountain and we saw some trees getting their new leaves. We stayed on the four-lane for a long time. When we got home my dog, Sophie, was glad to see us.

Izzy Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a citizen-science venture conducted under the auspices of Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon. It is conducted each February. It began as a kind of “feeder watch” or backyard project with volunteers counting the birds around their homes. A few years back the GBBC expanded its scope to include almost any setting participants decided to bird, including but not limited to public lands like parks and wildlife refuges.

In retrospect, I can see that my first GBBC was a harbinger of things to come. That year, early 2000s, was one like this one with large numbers of pine siskins. My feeders and the trees in my back yard were constantly full of the little buggers. On count day I counted 43 siskins at my feeders and could see at least that many more in the treetops. I recorded a conservative estimate of 75. The red flags flew!

I was contacted by a reviewer who informed me that I must have been mistaken – 75 pine siskins was an unheard of number. I responded that I did indeed have 75 siskins, probably more, but to no avail. The record was stricken.

Well, I decided that GBBC reviewers were probably prone to err on the side of caution and that 75 siskins was a high number so I just dropped the discourse. But my ego was bruised so I didn’t participate in the next couple of GBBCs.

Then February 2005 my brother Ford and I found ourselves in Louisiana at a gathering of the clans. It was the weekend of the GBBC and we decided to do an impromptu count at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge. While that year’s weather was bitter and the count was low, we enjoyed ourselves.

We decided to make the GBBC at Black Bayou an annual event. Surely as much a social event as scientific but an accurate count nonetheless.

Fast-forward to February 2009 — our fourth annual Black Bayou GBBC. This February we were a bit surprised and delighted to encounter palm warblers. I knew that palm warblers over wintered in Louisiana and didn’t anticipate the need for documentation even though my camera was in the truck.

It must have been the numbers thing again because the day after I submitted my count report I received, what to me, was a very patronizing email from a reviewer announcing that I had obviously made a typo in my report and meant two not 20 palm warblers.

I replied in a similar tone informing the reviewer that I, indeed, knew the difference between two and 20 and that 20 was, in fact, a conservative estimate.

After getting no response I checked the GBBC database and found that my record of palm warblers at Black Bayou was removed. I emailed the reviewer, asking if that was the end of the story. And received another patronizing email, which included a note that I should remember that the reviewer had no way of knowing my birding experience.

The devil made me do it. In my response I mentioned that, in fact, I did not know the reviewer’s birding experience either. Finally after about the third email exchange, in which I was admonished for being terribly rude and even accused of flaming in all CAPS, which I never did, I received a records form to fill out.

I dutifully filled out the form and returned it but you guessed it — still no palm warblers on the Black Bayou count. From perusing the GBBC blog, I discovered other contributors had experienced the same “numbers” problem. One solution I saw was simply, don’t report numbers greater than one or two and there’s generally no problem.

But what about the “science” part of citizen-science, doesn’t science require that we be as accurate as possible?

And I can’t help but mention the 2,000-pound ivory-billed woodpecker in the room. Perhaps if I had been able to convene a press conference at the White House to announce the 20 palm warblers with the same fanfare Cornell used to announce the “rediscovery” of the never-again-seen ivory-billed woodpecker in 2005 my sighting would have validity.

It’s not what ya’ know — it’s who ya’ know.

A mysterious malady is decimating bat populations across the Northeast and spreading south. The malady, called white-nose syndrome (WNS) because of a white fungus that appears around the muzzle of infected animals, was first documented from Schoharie Cavern, near Albany, N.Y., in 2007. Once word of WNS began to spread, photos from February 2006 showed bats with WNS from Howe Cave, also in New York. By early 2008, WNS had been documented from hibernacula across the Northeast including New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Signs of WNS include a white fungus that grows around the muzzle, ears and wing membranes, depleted winter-fat reserves, a lack of immune response during hibernation, scarred wing membranes, difficulty arousing from deep torpor and being active during daylight hours in mid-winter.

To date, species affected by WNS include little brown bat, big brown bat, northern long-eared bat, small-footed bat, eastern pipistrelle and the endangered Indiana bat. Mortality rates in some hibernacula have been greater than 90 percent.

To date, biologists and scientists remain unsure of the causal agent regarding WNS. They cannot be sure whether the fungus causing the white muzzles is the pathogen causing the deaths or whether it is simply a manifest symptom of some other causal agent.

The fungus has been isolated. It is a never-before described psychrophilic fungus closely related to the genus Geomyces. It thrives in cold damp habitats — just the kind you would find in a hibernaculum. It has, in fact, been collected from bats across a widely dispersed range of hibernacula in the Northeast.

While scientists and biologists grapple with the causative agent, WNS appears to be spreading southward. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia can now be added to the list of states where WNS has been documented.

Some people think of bats as scary things. But a world without bats could, actually, be much scarier. One little brown bat weighing around one ounce can eat up to 1,200 insects per hour. And the little brown is but one of 45 species of bats found in the U.S. In one study, 150 big brown bats surveyed throughout one summer were reported to have eaten enough adult cucumber beetles to prevent the hatching of more than 30 million cucumber beetle larvae.

Bat Conservation International is one of the organizations at the forefront of the WNS battle. To learn the latest regarding WNS visit their Web site at Besides documentation of the work they are doing, they also have links to other Web sites regarding WNS.

Peregrine pads protected

Rock climbing trails across the Carolina mountains near known peregrine falcon nest sites have once again been closed to climbers. The closures run from Jan. 15 to Aug. 15.

While the peregrine falcon was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999, it remains on North Carolina’s endangered species list. This iconic swift ruler of the skies appears to be gaining a talon-hold along the steep granite cliffs of Western North Carolina. Thirteen nest sites or eyries were monitored across the region last year. The 13 sites produced 15 fledglings.

Peregrines nest in crooks, crevices, crannies and cracks in sheer granite walls and/or bare rock outcroppings — the kinds of places only peregrines or adrenaline-laced climbers could love. The nest are usually, shallow depressions or scrapes scratched out by the bird’s talons on bare rocks. Sometimes peregrines will usurp the nest of a raven, as the pair at Devil’s Courthouse did back in 1999.

Perhaps there is some kind of kindred spirit between the climbers that ascend those slick grey walls and the birds that live there because climbers and climbing organizations have been among the birds’ biggest supporters.

In a recent press release, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s mountain wildlife diversity biologist Chris Kelly acknowledged the role climbers have played. “The peregrine falcon is an endangered species success story. Key to the success has been the willingness of rock climbers to make concessions for the birds and we hope area rock climbers will continue to be a part of the success,” Kelly said.

Biologists are concerned that adult birds may abandon nest sites if they are disturbed. Also, fledglings could bolt from their precipice before they are ready to fly if startled by climbers.

Seven of the known 13 eyries are on U.S. Forest Service land. These include Whitesides Mountain in the Highlands Ranger District, NC Wall, Shortoff Mountain, and Big Lost Cove Cliffs in the Grandfather District, Looking Glass Rock in the Pisgah District and Whiterock and Eagle Cliffs in the Appalachian District.

I don’t know the status of all the six other sites but Devil’s Courthouse along the Blue Ridge Parkway is also off limits to climbers.

If eyries are found in other locations there could be other trail closures and if falcons either are not present or finish nesting before August 15, current closures could be rescinded.

If you have any questions or peregrine sightings to report you can contact Chris Kelly, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, 828/230-1320, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Sandy Burnet, USDA Forest Service, 828.652.2144, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Robert Currie, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 828/258-3939, ext. 224, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

One thing became clear during my little bird feeding experiment. If you’re looking for one birdseed that will attract just about any bird, black oil sunflower seed is the bomb.

Remember a few weeks back when, disillusioned about the high price of birdseed, I decided to experiment with more frugal scenarios? I have a few thoughts on the subject but first I want to thank a couple of readers for responding to my plea for help.

Cindy Ramsey from Acworth, Ga., emailed to commiserate with me.

Cindy said she found a little relief through her local Wildbirds Unlimited franchise’s “Daily Saving Club.” I don’t know if all Wildbirds Unlimiteds offer such a plan but it sure wouldn’t hurt to ask.

Charles Hand of Canton gets special recognition for actually taking the time to pen a note and drop it in the mail. Mr. Hand adds microwaveable popcorn and crumpled unsalted crackers to stretch his bird rations. He didn’t mention if the popcorn was popped or unpopped. Hopefully the popcorn is also unsalted and if unpopped, it can be parboiled to soften the kernels some.

My first experiment was a rather dismal failure. I cut the black oil sunflower with cracked corn. Almost every species picked the sunflower seeds out completely before settling on any corn. Even the mourning doves preferred the sunflower. The best part of the corn experiment is that I now have a stash of corn for when the girl and I go to Lake Junaluska to feed the ducks.

Mixing black oil sunflower with generic “mixed” birdseed could help stretch your birdfood-dollar but once again the sunflower seed will be picked out and once it’s gone feeder visitation drops dramatically.

Nyjer thistle is the black oil of the finch world. Put nyjer seed in one feeder and small “finch food” in another and you will have to wait till the thistle is basically gone before there will be any takers at the finch food buffet. Put just the finch food out and you get the occasional interested siskin and/or goldfinch but they quickly migrate over to the sunflower seed.

Here’s the plan I’ve come up with for my feeders. I will purchase black oil sunflower, nyjer and the commercial “mixed” birdseed. But I will decide when and how much the little buggers eat. Just because there are feeders out there doesn’t mean they have to be topped off every time they get a little low.

As I’ve mentioned before, even birds that frequent your feeders get nearly 80 percent of their nutrition from the wild. Your feeders are just a part of their foraging. Most of us feed for our own enjoyment so put food out when you’re gonna be around to enjoy the birds. Morning and evening work best for me, so a little food out for the early bird and then a little dinner. And those feeders don’t have to be full — a couple of cups of sunflower seed, a little mixed seed and a little nyjer will attract a variety of birds. You can add peanut butter and/or suet too. When it’s gone the birds will forage on but if they know there’s gonna be dinner you will get some takers then, too.

And if you’re a late riser and like to putter around between 10 and two, fill your feeders then and it’s my guess that once the birds get accustomed to your buffet hours they will show up for vittles.

And on the “good news” front – I found black oil sunflower seed for $9 for a 25-pound bag at Pioneer Feed and Seed at the Hazelwood exit in Waynesville.

The results are in and the fourth annual Hendershot Birdapalooza at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Monroe, Louisiana was the most successful to date. We ended the day (6.5 hrs.) with 66 species.

The success was due, in no small part, to the fact that we had help from two experienced local birders. If you are traveling somewhere to bird there is no substitute for local knowledge. And birders are generally quite accommodating and willing to help out of town birders.

As is my habit, I began perusing the Louisiana birding listserv a couple of weeks prior to departing for Black Bayou. I noticed one birder, Steve Pagans, was doing a lot of surveys in the Monroe and Bastrop areas. When I saw that he had found federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers near Bastrop, where my brother and I would be staying, I contacted him and asked for directions, which he provided.

In the “it’s a small birder-world” department, my brother also contacted Pagans. To their surprise they found that they had met before at Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Oklahoma, where my brother, Ford, sometimes assists with birding and/or natural history programs.

Steve and birding partner, Joan Brown, who had also been to Red Slough, took time from their busy birding schedule — they are compiling winter quad reports for Louisiana State University — to meet us around 7:30 a.m. Saturday at the visitor’s center at Black Bayou.

They spent the better part of the morning birding with us, which was beneficial on two levels. First, the more eyes and ears the better when you’re conducting a whirlwind tour like we were at Black Bayou. And secondly, with their knowledge of Black Bayou they could direct us to the birdier spots.

We want to express our gratitude to Steve and Joan for taking the time from their quad surveys to join us at Black Bayou. Especially, thank you for calling us with the loggerhead shrike you saw as you were exiting the refuge — it was the only one for the day.

There were misses as there always are on these one-day affairs. I believe this was the first year that we failed to see a hairy woodpecker. But the first-time species more than made up for the misses. Our firsts for the fourth annual Birdapalooza included Eurasian collared-dove, great-horned owl, purple martin, palm warbler (25) and anhinga.

The Birdapalooza is always a fun trip. The opportunity to visit friends and family is always worth it, even if birding conditions are lousy as they have sometimes been. But this trip, the weather was great — a little cool and windy at the start but clear skies and mild temps. Plus we got to make two new birding friends. Thanks again to Steve and Joan.

(Naturalist Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The mountain section of the North Carolina Birding Trail (NCBT) is complete and the Mountain Region Trail Guide, describing, with directions, the 105 sites along the trail should be available by early summer 2009.

Many of those sites are in Haywood and surrounding counties. They include Lake Junaluska, Max Patch and the southern Great Balsam Mountains adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Haywood County. Other area sites include the Little Tennessee River Greenway, Tessentee Farm and the Highlands Biological Station in Macon County, plus Kituwah (formerly Ferguson Fields) in Swain County and Stecoah Gap and the Cherohala Skyway from Graham County. The Mountain Region Trail Guide will join the already completed Coastal Guide and Piedmont Guide in linking outstanding birding sites across the Old Home State. North Carolina’s myriad and diverse habitats from coastal barrier islands to 6,000-foot mountaintops provide nesting sites and stopover sites for more than 450 species of resident and/or migratory birds.

It has been the mission of the NCBT, since its creation in 2003, “To conserve and enhance North Carolina’s bird habitat by promoting sustainable bird-watching activities, economic opportunities and conservation education.”

Part of NCBT’s vision statement includes, “Our unique geographic setting along the Atlantic coast flyway provides both breeding and wintering grounds for many birds, making North Carolina a premiere bird-watching destination. Yet this rich natural heritage is largely untapped as an economic resource for promoting nature-based tourism. The North Carolina Birding Trail (NCBT) will provide a common thread to tie together bird-watching, nature-based tourism and our great natural and cultural resources for the economic benefit of our citizens.”

Part of that common thread is NCBT’s “Birder Friendly Business & Birder Friendly Community” training. The program provides tools and training for businesses and communities along the trail, which will allow them to anticipate birders’ needs and wants and devise appropriate marketing plans.

A 2007 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment noted that 81.1 million Americans participate in some form of birding activity. And a 2006 US Fish & Wildlife study reported that Americans spent nearly $45 billion in 2006 on bird-related activities. North Carolina reported that 2.6 million wildlife watchers in the state spent $916 million.

According to Dr. Stacy Tomas, North Carolina State University assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism management the birding trail will give communities a chance to utilize the natural resources in their area as an economic tool.

“We are the third fastest urbanizing state in the country, so the birding trail gives us a way to keep our open spaces open and develop our economy,” Tomas said.

If you are a business owner, community leader or simply curious you can find out more about NCBT’s birder friendly business and/or community programs by attending a March 19 workshop at the Haywood County Extension Center in Waynesville. To register contact Robert Hawk at 828.456.3575 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To date, Haywood and Jackson counties are lagging behind neighboring counties when it comes to birder/community friendly certified businesses. The Haywood County Cooperative Extension in Waynesville is the only county entity listed at NCBT’s Web site and the only one for Jackson County is the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. That compares to Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center in Robbinsville, Fontana Village, God’s Garden, Taylor’s Greenhouse, Appalachian Inn Bed & Breakfast and Nantahala National Forest all in Robbinsville for Graham County. And Land Trust for the Little Tennessee in Franklin, 4 1/2 Street Inn, Highlands Hiker, Highlands Area Chamber of Commerce, Highlands Plateau Audubon Society, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Jackson-Macon Conservation alliance, Morningside Bed and Breakfast, The Bird Barn, The Chandler Inn and Whiteside Cove Cottage all of Highlands, in Macon County.

Remember when it comes to birders’ bucks — the early bird gets the worm.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Last week I wrote about the spiraling cost of birdseed and about experimenting with different seed and protocol for those bird-feeding aficionados who, like me, are on a budget. The idea was to try and find a way to still enjoy birds and not wreck your budget. However, last night I heard a short blurb on WLOS’s 11 p.m. news that reminded me there is a time to stop feeding the birds.

The message was just a couple of sentences stating that dead birds were being reported at feeders across Western North Carolina. If there were details regarding numbers of birds and/or how widespread the phenomenon was, I didn’t catch them. The anchor did note that most of the birds were pine siskins. Pine siskins are small (goldfinch-sized) brown-streaked finches with patches of yellow in the wings. This has been a banner winter for siskins across the Carolinas and much of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast U.S. When they come, they usually come in hordes. I have heard of people with a hundred or more clamoring for spots at the feeder this year.

Anytime you find dead birds at your feeder the prudent thing to do is discard all seed in the feeders — put it in the trash, don’t just toss it on the ground, the birds will still find it — and then thoroughly clean and disinfect your feeders. A solution of nine parts water and one part bleach is generally recommended. Use a brush and scrub the feeders well. If you are cleaning tube feeders you may want to fill a sink and submerse the feeder. A couple of capfuls of bleach to each gallon of water should suffice. If you are washing wooden feeders and you like the finish you should use a disinfectant other than bleach. You can generally find different brands of disinfectant at specialty stores that cater to birders and/or bird feeders. Or you can use a 5 percent white vinegar to water solution or tea tree oil, about a capful in a gallon of warm soapy water. And if you simply can’t wait to get your feeders back up, use a hair dryer or heat gun to dry them.

Check your birdseed before refilling your feeders. If you see mold or mildew or even if the seed feels damp and/or is clumpy, dispose of it and get fresh seed.

If you’ve done all this and still find dead birds, take your feeders down for a week or so. There may be some type of communicable avian pathogen present and even though your feeders and food are clean and disinfected, simply attracting large numbers of birds to a small area can help spread diseases. This is especially true of gregarious birds like pine siskins. So taking your feeders down and letting the birds disperse will help lessen the impact of any kind of avian sickness.

And as we discussed last week — we feed birds primarily for our benefit. They are perfectly capable of fending for themselves in the wild.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Anyone who reads this column regularly knows I am a fan of backyard bird feeding. The constant feathered activity just a few feet from the kitchen window is a constant reminder of the incredible diversity that spins around the sun with us on our big blue marble.

Whether it is the almost constant back and forth of chickadees and titmice or the raucous inverted antics of nuthatches, hardly a minute passes without some type of activity at the feeders. The middle of April means it’s time to get the hummingbird feeders up. And if we’ve procrastinated the hum of wings and squeaks at the windows will remind us. Once the hummers are here, it’s not long before the freshly plumaged brightly colored rose-breasted grosbeak will appear at the black oil sunflower seeds. It is not uncommon, in migration, to have groups of four or five grosbeaks at the feeders together. As spring rolls on and territories are carved out grosbeak numbers will dwindle down to one or two pair that will nest in the woods around my house. And throughout the summer a flash of color will announce when one of the pairs has dropped in for the buffet.

The flocks of juncos and morning doves that fed all winter on the ground beneath the feeders will also dwindle in number as spring rolls on till only nesting pairs are left. White-throated sparrows will disappear but song sparrows will remain along with nesting cardinals and towhees.

When autumn rolls around there will be an explosion of hummingbirds as nesters and their offspring battle with migrants over nectar-rights. Cardinals, towhees, titmice and all tired of bill-feeding hungry fledglings will bring them to the feeders and teach them the ropes.

Spring and fall migrations are generally the best time to keep an eye out for some not so common visitors. Last March I was surprised to have a pine warbler show up, nibbling at my peanut butter mixture. I usually get fox sparrows passing through both spring and fall.

Winter means finches — purple and house come and go sporadically and in varying numbers. Goldfinches in good numbers are common most of the winter. But the little buggers that will eat you out of house and home are the pine siskins. And while we’ve not had one in quite some time, there are those winter irruptions that can bring evening grosbeaks and their apparently unending appetites.

I feed birds for the same reason most people do — my enjoyment. I love having these beautiful wild creatures at arm’s length. I’m sure they are more than capable of fending for themselves. And there is research that shows that even birds that frequent your feeders on a daily basis get as much as 70 to 80 percent of their nourishment from wild foods.

But presently there is a fly in the ointment. The price of birdseed, especially popular birdseed like black oil sunflower and nyjer or niger thistle has doubled. I don’t know how many of my fellow bird feeders out there are on a budget these days, but for me $16 for a 25-pound bag of sunflower seed is pushing it, especially in the winter when I can go through a bag in a couple of weeks.

During the next couple of weeks I am going to experiment, in a completely capricious and subjective manner, on ways to maintain numbers and diversity of bird species while slashing my birdseed budget. If any of you out there have done this and would like to share your results please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I will post my results in the Naturalist’s Corner in a couple of weeks.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

It’s late January and it’s 15 degrees outside, snow is flying, the Alberta Clipper has the huge yellow buckeye swaying like the mast of a sailing ship but inside that yellow buckeye, a good 50 feet above ground in a cramped clawed out leaf-lined den, life will not be denied. A black bear is giving birth to two tiny, sightless, hairless cubs weighing maybe 10 ounces each. The cubs will be shifted quickly to their mother’s breast where their small round mouths will find teats and warm rich milk.

Black bear are found throughout North America, in suitable habitat, from Canada to Florida and from coast to coast. Most black bears hibernate for a period of time during winter. That time could range from seven months in Alaska and Canada to three to four months in the Southern Appalachians to zero months in Florida.

Pregnant females are generally the earliest hibernators followed by barren females and females with yearlings and lastly males. Black bears usually give birth from late December through February, with most cubs being born from mid- to late January. Even in southern states like Louisiana and Florida where bears can be active year round, pregnant females “den up” to give birth.

A den can be anything from a pile of leaves and sticks in a rhododendron slick for a bear in the Appalachians to a rock crevice in Maine to a cave in the Rockies to the roots of an upturned spruce in Canada. Pregnant females tend to select the most secure and protected dens and it is common in the Appalachians for these dens to be in cavities in large, mature hardwoods.

The debate, “Are black bears ‘true’ hibernators?” is still out there but it seems most wildlife biologists are expanding their definition and/or concept of hibernation to include black bears. One of the main sticking points is the fact that the bear’s body temperature does not drop as dramatically as that of other hibernators.

While the bear’s heart rate in hibernation may drop from between 45 to 70 beats per minute to between eight and 12 its temperature may only drop from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to between 86 and 96 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s this relatively high body temperature that allows the mother bear to be alert enough to care for her young. And that can be a demanding task. Newborns will nurse every 10 minutes or so. As they get older the intervals between feedings will grow giving the mom time to nap while the cubs nap.

It is also the bear’s body temperature that keeps the cubs warm. There is often little difference between outside temperatures and the temperature in the den. The mom turns her thickly furred back to the cold and curls up in a ball bringing the cubs close to her breast. Her body heat and warm breath help keep the cups warm. By the time the cubs are six weeks old they are also covered with a dense fur.

The bear’s milk is metabolized directly from body fat and is nearly twice as high in calories as human milk and/or cow’s milk. The bear may lose as much as half a pound a day in weight as it converts its body fat into milk. The mother bear may produce as much as 50 pounds of milk before the winter is over.

Female black bears become sexually mature at around four years old. They typically have one cub their first pregnancy. Since they care for their cubs for a year or so, sexually mature bears generally give birth every other year. Litters can range from one to four with two being the average here in the Southern Appalachians.

As the cubs grow they become more and more active in the den and if the den is at ground level, they may actually venture outside occasionally by early March. Most bear families are out of the den by late April. The cubs will weigh between nine and 12 pounds and it will be time for mom to find some food and show them the ropes.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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