The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

Rick Brockway

February 24, 2012

Bears don't always keep their eyes shut for the whole winter

I was in Delhi the other day when I was approached by an elderly gentleman.

"You're the fellow who writes for The Star, aren't you?" he asked.

I smiled and gave him a cordial greeting as our conversation began.

"Tell me, how come I saw a bear out wandering around the other day? Aren't they supposed to be sleeping?"

I explained that bears, like many other mammals, sleep or hibernate through the winter but sometimes rouse up and wander around. After all, a bear's hibernation is actually a light sleep.

Years ago when I lived in the Adirondacks, we were snowshoeing in the West River country. As we passed an old, steel suspension bridge at the Whitehouse, there was a set of bear tracks in the snow. We followed them through the forest for a while but never caught up with the furry creature. I'm not sure of the date, but it was probably around this time of year. I know it was cold and the snow was quite deep.

I asked my old buddy John Vodron about it, and with all the wisdom of the mountains, he told me that male bears sometimes wake up and come out of their dens during the winter and wander around a bit. He has seen it many times.

I remember reading a story about a bear researcher in Michigan or Minnesota who was checking on bears in their dens. By using radio-tracking collars, he was able to locate the "sleeping" bears and continue his research. He dug the snow from one bruin's nest and crawled inside. For several minutes, he listened for the bear's almost nonexistent heartbeat with his ear pressed against the bear's side.

Suddenly, the bear moved and its heart beat rose. The young fellow's heart raced as well as he quickly backed out of the den with the bear looking him square in the eyes.

Chipmunks, skunks, woodchucks, bats and many other mammals hibernate, but a bear's seasonal sleep is actually referred to as winter lethargy. A bear can go for more than three months without eating, drinking, urinating, defecating or exercising. Their body temperature drops to about 88 degrees, as opposed to smaller critters, which may have body temperatures around 40 degrees during hibernation.

Many of us have heard stories about bear cubs being born while their mother soundly sleeps. This is not totally correct.

The mother bear is awake during birth, licks and tends to her babies and dozes on and off throughout the remaining winter months as they suckle on her belly. It's not a complete surprise to the mother bear when she wakes up in the spring. The babies just don't appear when she opens her eyes yelling, "Hi mom, we're here!"

Bears can sleep through the brutal winter months because of their great bulk, inches-deep fat layers and thick, insulating coats. Most do, but maybe every so often, an old boar just likes to get up and wander around to make sure everything was just as he left it last fall.

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at robrockway@hotmail.com.

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