Last week while leading a wildlife photography workshop to capture images of American Black Bears (Ursus americanus) we experienced a cuteness overload. Over three and half days, we saw many mother bears with spring cubs. The term “spring cub” refers to cubs that were born this past winter and just now coming out of den with their mother.
We are extremely fortunate in North America to have three out of the eight bear species in the world. These are the Polar Bear, Brown Bear and Black Bear. The Polar Bears occur in the far northern region of Canada and Alaska. There are many subspecies of the Brown Bear including the well know Kodiak Brown Bear which is the largest of the subspecies and the Grizzly which is the smallest.
The Black Bear is unique to North America. This is why they are usually called the American Black Bear. It is found all across Canada and Alaska and reaching down the Rocky Mountains and extending well into Mexico. They are also found in many of the central and eastern states and as far south as Florida.
My photographic group was thrilled to see so many young spring cubs. These tiny four-legged furry critters were born just three to four months ago, during the coldest part of winter (January and February) in a protected den shared by their mother. Amazingly the cubs where only eight to 10 ounces (half a pound) at birth. This is a tiny fraction of the size of the mother who is 200 to 300 pounds.
The mother looks after and takes care of the small bears for about 17 months. However, at a one and a half year of age and not very full grown at all, the young bears are chased away (dispersed) by the mother in June and July of their first full year. The mating season for bears is in June / July and the mother can’t have young cubs around when the big male bears come around for mating.
Mother bears give birth to one to six young (average two to three) every other year after they reach sexual maturity at three to five years of age. After mating, the fertilized eggs do not implant in the female’s womb (uterus). The eggs are fertilized but remain in a suspended state and don’t grow until November when the eggs attach to the uteran wall.
So technically the gestation is only about 10 weeks long, which explains why the baby bears are so small at birth. Their eyes are still shut, and they are 100 percent dependent upon their mother. Their eyes don’t open until they are 30-40 days old and start to walk at five weeks. By the time the cubs follow the mother out of the den they weigh only about 4-8 pounds. They can run and climb trees to avoid danger even though they are so small. In fact, young bears spend more time up in trees than they do on the ground.
The cubs continue to nurse on mothers’ milk until their teeth grow in and they start to eat solid food. The cubs nurse for around 30 weeks. At six months of age, they weigh from 40-60 pounds and are eating fully on their own.
On average Black Bears live around 18 to 20 years and it’s hard to imagine that these tiny, super cute baby bears will grow up to be 300 pound males or 200 pound females. The oldest known Black Bear was a female that was over 39 years old and lived in the forests of northern Minnesota.
Over three days we had several opportunities to see and capture some amazing images of the spring cubs. Everything in the wild world is new and scary to these tiny cubs so their natural response is to climb up a tree. Also, if the mother senses any danger she will huff and grunt, telling the cubs to get up in a tree. When this happened, it allowed us to capture some wonderful images and natural behaviors of these amazing critters. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is a author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. He can contacted via his web page at NatureSmart.com.