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Field Notes: What Bears Leave Behind

Black bear stock photo.
Black bear

Recently, on an island in a Montana lake, I was walking through an old orchard, left twisted and rotting. Only the red-golden crab apples and tough green pears still grew. The trees were short, yet all the remaining crab apples were just beyond my reach. The only fruit I could reach was on the ground, one side soft. I presumed it had lain there all day, but I ate it anyway, to taste its bitterness.

As I walked along, I glanced down. A bright-red splotch caught my eye. It wasn’t some crumpled trash as I first thought. Another crab apple? No, on closer look it was bigger and more beautiful: a bright red, orange, yellow, brown and green bear scat. All the colors of the orchard were left there. This discovery began a quest for clues which I hoped would ultimately lead me to identify the secretive morning visitor.

There was a small scat, about a quarter-inch in diameter, and a larger scat one-and-a-half inches in diameter. They appeared to have been left by a female bear and her cub. Black bear droppings are usually easily distinguished from other animals’ scat, especially in early fall, because of their even form and the preponderance of undigested fruits. The scat was not that old, but not super fresh, either - probably several hours old. Bears are active during the day, but not much at night.

Supposedly, there weren’t any black bears living on the island. So this female bear must have swum to the island with her cub, a distance of more than a mile. The bears are the reason I couldn’t find any crab apples at my height. I am 5’6” and could just reach the lower branches with my arms stretched.

Standing on her hind legs, the female could have easily been 6’ tall, not even counting the reach of her front paws. Black bears have hooked claws which allow them to reach up with both paws, pull branches loaded with fruit toward them, and eat whatever falls their way. The cub maybe was too small to reach a branch and scrambled instead for the apples that fell to the ground.

Away from the orchard, on a small slope, I found even fresher bear scat. Some black flies were digging inside the red pile. Using a stiff stalk of grass, I began to dissect the scat and imagined that I was on a forensics team, charged with deciphering an identity from these scatological clues. First the big one, then the little one. Both had crab apples skins and stems. Both had leathery pear skins and chunks of the woody flesh. The larger scat had two dead beetles. Insects are often found in bear scat, sometimes in large numbers, though usually not until late fall when fruit becomes scarce.

Where were these bears which I must have just missed? Animal can sense the presence of one another and humans just by smell. The only trace of bear I could find was the scat, which didn’t seem to have any odor.

When out in the forest, we humans mainly rely on our sight. So if it hadn’t been for what they left behind, these bears would have been invisible to me. Their scat was like the Invisible Man’s bandage, a trace that leads to mysterious emptiness. The forests are filled with such ghosts who leave behind little clues of their passing.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Fieldnotes," 11/03/15. Listen on air or online Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)

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