While canoeing on the Madawaska river in Algonquin Park in August 2014, we heard rustling from the Northeast side of the river. We paused the canoe to watch branches swaying and then listened to the sounds of snapping twigs. Suddenly a large black bear peeked its head out from behind the shoreline vegetation less than 10 metres from the boat. He/She saw us in the canoe, huffed and then wandered back a few paces into the alders to continue foraging for food. Amazing! We continued to listen to the bear as it huffed and blew out air every once in a while as it worked hard to pull down food from the branches. I felt my heart race with adrenaline. We were so close to a wild black bear. I contemplated potential escape routes. I felt relieved to be in a swift canoe, armed with defensive paddles if needed. I calmed myself enough to appreciate the moment – we were sharing the river with a magestic black bear who was intent to carry on with his/her daily routine. The fortunate fact that he/she allowed us to be spectators is astonishing. What was the bear eating? We decided to come back the next day to look for tracks:
The next day, we docked the canoes along the shore and peeked into where the bear had peeked out. I snapped a photo of what we saw. The Royal Ferns in the middle of this photo had been squashed, as if sat on. The sporangia on the ferns had been nipped off, which I later learned was most likely signs of deer browsing. A carpet of very soft moss covered the ground. The exposed soil on the left side of the photo revealed a wide, well-used bear trail. There were no husks or shells on the ground. I did not see any beaked hazelnut trees. I found some bent alder branches. I noticed that many of the alders were missing their male catkins but the female cones were still present. My friend Valerie noticed that there was evidence that caterpillars had been eating the alder leaves but there were no caterpillars that we could see. The mystery of what the bear was eating was still open-ended but I did research bears eating alder catkins and caterpillars…
Apparently black bears do eat aspen and willow catkins in the spring. I could not find information about bears eating alder catkins in August but I was able to learn something interesting about alder catkins that may be correlated:
While reading an article called “A Note on Eating Alder Catkins“, I learned that alder catkins have been eaten raw or cooked and are rich in protein similar to oatmeal.
Six tablespoons—or roughly three ounces—of alder catkins pollen may contain:
- 0.6 oz of crude protein
- 1/3 oz of simple sugars
- 1/6 oz of crude fat
- 1/3 oz of starches
- all amino acids necessary for human health
- over 40 vitamins and minerals
- trace amounts of glucose oxidase, an antibacterial compound*
*A Note on Eating Alder Catkins, n.d., viewed October 14, 2014. Retrieved from:
I also read that the catkins have been chewed to alleviate diarrhea. This was most interesting since I know that a bear’s diet in July consists mainly of cherries, blueberries, serviceberries, wild sarsaparilla berries and raspberries. (Retrieved from: Typical Year for Black Bears). Perhaps alder catkins are used by black bears to help alleviate diarrhea from berry foraging?
I recommend reading another interesting article called, “Catkins, can we eat them?”
Now… what about the caterpillars?
I read a great article called “Forest Tent Caterpillars“. I learned that caterpillar skins often come through bears intact, making it possible to count how many caterpillars are eaten per day. In one study, a researcher counted the caterpillar skins in bear droppings and discovered that the bear had eaten approximately 20,000 (20-22 pounds) of tent caterpillars each day.* I wonder if the bear by the river was eating caterpillars?
*Forest Tent Caterpillars, n.d., viewed October 14, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.bear.org/website/bear-pages/black-bear/foraging-a-foods/86-forest-tent-caterpillars.html
The previous photo was taken while tracking with Alexis Burnett and his tracking apprenticeship program.
When I first saw a bear track, I was baffled to learn that their big toe is on the outside compared to our big toe being on the inside of our foot. Perhaps this has something to do with climbing trees? How many other mammals are like this? I wonder why human feet are anatomically different and for what purpose?
Bears have five toes. Toe one is the smallest, located on the inside of the track. Nails on the front feet are longer than on the hind feet. The heel pad of the rear track does not often register. The heel pad of the front track does register. The above photo likely shows a front, left foot. The shape and “feel” of the track is interesting. You can feel the placement of each of the toes on a slightly higher plane than the heel pad. The shape of the track looks similar to a giant jellybean and the trail is wide – much wider than a deer run for example.
*Bear Tracks and Trails, n.d., viewed October 14, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.bear.org/website/bear-pages/black-bear/black-bear-sign.html
Bear Claw Marking
The rope to the right of sign appeared to be a “food hanging” rope.
I learned from reading Mark Elbroch’s “Mammal Tracks and Sign” that bears mark locations along their travel routes and near food and bedding areas. The ranger cabin (photos above) backs onto a mature mixed forest. It overlooks a wetland habitat near Chit Lake. The outer walls of the cabin were covered in bear claw sign. Marked or clawed areas are used for communication. The height of claw marks may communicate dominance. Bears that are new to an area may stand and check their height against the claw marks of resident bears. It is common to find bears marking human-made structures. Female bears mark most often in the spring and males mark most in late summer or fall. Bears may mark locations as a result of “displacement behaviour”. This type of behaviour usually occurs when an animal is torn between two different drives such as fear and aggression. A cornered bear will mark trees or structures vigorously. After observing the bear-carved Chit Lake cabin, I wondered if the bears were feeling “displaced” by the human-made structure in their territory? I also wondered if the bears were using the walls like a giant, wood-framed stress release ball. They should make a sign for this cabin that reads: “Built with bear hands”:)
I learned that bears will often claw into Balsam Fir and other sappy conifers because the sticky sap holds the bear’s scent well. You can often find hairs stuck to the sticky sap in marked trees.
It is common to see bear sign on telephone poles and other human-made structures. These marked areas indicate high bear activity. The bear reaches up and bites, claws and rubs the tree or pole, leaving scent and sometimes hair. Marked trees or poles are often located on bear trails or in feeding areas.
It appears that this hungry black bear eagerly swallowed the blueberries that he/she was eating without taking too much time to chew. This scat was found on a well-used trail that headed towards the canoe launch at the Wildlife Research Centre in Algonquin Park. Bears leave scats in obvious places along travel routes. Black bears defecate between six and eight times a day.* (Mammal Tracks and Sign, page 477).
*Elbroch, M. 2003, Mammal Tracks and Sign, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.
Upon closer inspection of the scat, we found more evidence of what the bear was eating:
Yes indeed, the black bear also ate a dragonfly, perhaps while he/she sat near the bog eating delicious blueberries.