What Do Black Bears Eat?


Black bears have a varied diet that includes many types of food. In this article, we look at what makes up the diet of a black bear.

Black bears eat a variety of foods to supplement their dietary requirements. These include other mammals, plants, fruits, nuts, and berries, as well as fish, insects, birds eggs, reptiles, and amphibians.

There are three species of bear in North America, the American black bear, the brown ‘grizzly’ bear, and the polar bear. All three species of bear eat a varied diet from the other two. Here we discuss the diet of the American black bear.

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Black bear standing on rocks at low tide Tofino British Columbia Canada

What Do Black Bears Eat?

American black bears can spend over half of the year, up to seven months, hibernating every year. For them to survive during the winter, they must make sure that the rest of the year they build their fat reserves. Without these fat reserves, it would make it impossible to make it through the winter.

Black bears have a huge appetite in the warmer months when they are not hibernating. In these months, they spend almost all of their time eating, traveling and sleeping.

Due to the long period of hibernation, American black bears prefer foods that are high in fat, sugar and protein. Black bears are classified as carnivores.

However, the American black bear does have a varied diet. Although this includes large ungulates such as caribou, deer, elk, moose and wapiti, it is also made up of plant matter and fruits.

Black bears will also eat many different species of fish, along with birds and eggs. They will also eat various types of insects including bees and wasps.

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Mammals

Black bears are carnivores and will eat young caribou, deer, elk, moose, and wapiti.

Black bears will remember where ungulates such as deer and elk have given birth, deliberately hunting in those areas year after year. In other areas, the bears will come across the young whilst traveling.

The number of young eaten by black bears can be significant in some areas of the country.

Black bears can also take down large hoofed mammals such as caribou, moose or wapiti, but will generally only do so if the animal has been weakened or is injured. A black bear does not want to risk injury to itself before the long hibernation.

The geographic location and the habitat plays a big part in which other animals black bears will eat.

In some polar areas, black bears feed mostly on larger animals for the increased protein. In these colder areas, such as Northern Labrador, the black bears will take down fully grown caribou, deer and moose.

Other animals that black bears eat include beavers, bobcats, coyotes, ground squirrels, mice, red foxes, voles and wolves.

American black bears will also feed on carrion left behind by other species, chasing the other animals away from a kill.

In spring, black bears may dig small mammals such as gophers from their burrows. However, there is usually much larger animals that are easier to find.

Black bears may also find an abundance of animals that have not survived the long, cold winter. Old or weakened animals such as caribou, deer, elk and moose that have died during the freezing season are left for the bears to feed on in spring.

The protein-rich carcasses can greatly help a bear that has been in hibernation throughout the winter.

Plants

Although black bears supplement their diet with meat, up to 90% of their diet is vegetarian. Whereas ungulates such as cows, elk and whitetail deer have a specialized stomach that can break down the plant matter efficiently, the black bear does not.

Ungulates have a long digestive tract, made up of four sections in the stomach. Each of these sections has its function with specialized bacteria that help to break the material down.

Bear, Ontario, Canada, Outdoors, Animal Wildlife, Killarney Provincial Park

Black bears only have a one-chambered stomach, unlike the four-chambered ungulates. However, although it is not as functional when it comes to breaking down the plant material, their digestive tract is very long.

This lengthened digestive tract allows the black bears to pull extra nutrition from plants. Black bears will eat plants when they are the most nutritious and tender to them.

Plants such as alfalfa, clover and dandelions are all broad-leafed, and soft for the bears to digest. Flowers and roots are also eaten in large quantities, although they do not like to expend energy digging for the roots.

Plant matter is an essential part of the nutritional diet when the black bear wakes up from hibernation. Coinciding with the end of hibernation, new shoots and plants begin to grow in the spring, after the long winter.

These new plants are soft and easy to digest for the re-emerging bear. After hibernation, the stomach of a black bear takes a few weeks to start working properly again after a long time without much food.

During the summer, bears will eat flowering plants such as Lillies and fireweed to supplement their nutrition.

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Berries and Fruit

Black bears also eat berries and fruits, which are all important to vary the diet of the bear. Fruit eaten by bears include apples, blackberries cherries, elderberries, huckleberries, plums, raspberries and rose hips.

Raspberries and other blackberries become ripe early in the year, allowing the bear to eat these before moving onto other fruit that ripens later in the year. Black bears can decimate a farmers crop of berries, with some eating more than 30,000 a year.

Various nuts are also eaten by black bears, and they will peel these from the cones of deciduous and evergreen trees. Hazelnuts are one of the favorite types of nut for a bear with some bears traveling considerable distances to reach a harvest of nuts.

With the black bear being able to climb, this gives them an advantage over creatures that can not.

Insects

As well as feeding on animals, American black bears also feed on many other foods to supplement their diet. Black bears eat a large range of insects and worms. These include ants, grubs, grasshoppers, beetle larvae, moths, caterpillars and earthworms. Black bears have a sticky tongue that is used to watch insects.

Ants are an important food source for bears, as they are high in protein. When fruit and berries are low, ants are eaten in great quantities. Black bears will eat ants, along with the young in pupal and larval stages.

They will also feed on bees and wasps. Many people believe that bears feed on honey, and this is correct. However, they mostly raid the beehives for the bees themselves along with the larvae.

A black bear with its nose buried in a food container eats trash out of a residential garbage bag in summertime

Birds and Eggs

Black bears will eat various bird species, including ducks, geese and grouse. American black bears will also feed on the eggs of birds. Being adept at climbing trees, the black bears can find the eggs in the nests, as well as the newly hatched birds too young to escape. However, they generally take most of the eggs and young chicks from the nest of ground-nesting birds.

Cannibalism

They may also indulge in cannibalism, eating young black bears, along with adult female bears in some areas. Cannibalism is mainly carried out by large adult males.

Although classified as carnivores, the American black bear makes up most of its diet from plants and fruit. Whereas other predators such as foxes, mountain lion, and wolves feed many on meat, black bears get up to 90% of their nutrition from plant material.

Reptiles and Amphibians

In the south of the country, such as Louisiana and Florida, bears may also feed on alligators. Although they do not want to risk injury from a full-grown alligator, they will raid the nests for the young and the unhatched eggs.

Black bears also eat some reptiles and amphibians such as frogs, although this makes up a very small portion of their diet.

Fish

American black bears will also feed on various types of fish, depending on the geographical location. Black bears along the Western Pacific Coast need the supply of salmon spawning in the area to make up their diet.

Other types of fish include trout, which swim further inland in streams. Shallow-water species of fish such as carp and catfish can easily be caught by hungry black bears.

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Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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