8 Surprising Facts About Black Bears

American black bear standing near a stream among fall foliage

mlorenzphotography / Getty Images

The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is native to North America and is found primarily in Canada and the U.S., with a small population in Mexico. There are 16 subspecies which differ slightly in appearance. An estimated 600,000 to 700,000 adult black bears exist throughout their range, and they are not considered endangered.

Black bears vary in size: males weigh from 100 to 900 pounds and females from 85 and 500 pounds. They measure between four and six and a half feet long from nose to tail. From their ability to pack away pounds for a long winter’s nap to their keen sense of smell, here are a few things you may not know about the American black bear.

1. Black Bears Are Impressive Climbers

A female black bear teaching her young cub to climb a tree in the forest
Bkamprath / Getty Images

Black bears are expert tree climbers. Their strong claws are built for climbing, and they can run up a tree with incredible speed. Female bears teach their cubs to climb at a young age, and often send them up a tree to escape from danger. Adult black bears continue to climb throughout their lives. They latch on with their front paws and use their back legs to walk up a tree. Black bears don’t turn around to go down a tree. They come down the same way they go up: back legs first.

When it comes to climbing, black bears have a distinct advantage. It’s not a good idea to try to climb a tree to escape a bear, as it can provoke them to chase and possibly attack. 

2. They Are Fast Runners 

Don't be fooled by their waddling walk. While they are notoriously slow, black bears can move quickly when necessary. Black bears can execute short and powerful bursts on flat land, uphill, or downhill in search of prey or to outrun danger. Though only for short distances, they can reach speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour, faster than most humans, so do not attempt to outrun a bear. 

3. They Are Skilled Swimmers

Black bears aren't just swift on land — they're also proficient swimmers. They have no trouble swimming across rivers or lakes, and thanks to their powerful legs, they move through the water with ease and seem to enjoy it. 

Depending on habitat, the water is also a source of food for black bears, and they teach their baby cubs to swim early.

4. They’re Not Always Black 

A white Kermode or spirit bear in British Columbia standing on ricks in a stream
 KenCanning / Getty Images

Black bears have a bit of a misleading name. The species most often has a shaggy black coat, particularly in the eastern portion of its range, but not always. Black bears can also be brown, cinnamon, red, grey, tan, or blond. The individuals in the western portions of the range tend to be lighter in color. A small subspecies of black bears found only in coastal British Columbia known as Kermode bears or spirit bears are white

5. They Have Great Senses

Black bears have a keen sense of hearing and good vision, but their best sense by far is their sense of smell. With their oversized noses, bears have the ability to sniff out even the tiniest morsels of food. Because their sense of smell is so sharp, they easily find food discarded by humans and can detect the smell of food over a mile away. Their sense of smell also helps them identify danger and find a mate.

The hearing frequency of black bears is also superior to humans, and while their distance vision is not great, they have excellent eyesight at close range. Between their superior senses of smell and hearing, black bears usually notice humans before we see them.

6. They Usually Hibernate

In October or November, black bears begin looking for a place to hibernate. Most often they select places like tree cavities, spaces under logs or rocks, deep caves, or dens they dig out themselves. Their hibernation period is genetically predetermined based on their habitat and the availability of food. In the northernmost portions of their range, black bears hibernate seven months or longer. In southern areas, where temperatures are warmer and the food supply is available year-round, the bears hibernate for shorter periods, or not at all.

The hibernation of black bears is different from other animals. Their temperature and heart rate drop, but not dramatically, and they don’t need to leave their dens to eat or defecate. Females often give birth to their cubs during hibernation. The bears’ hibernation process is of interest to researchers who hope to discover how they are able to maintain bone mass and manage their cholesterol levels during their long period of rest.

7. They Like To Eat

Black bears are omnivores, and their diet is dependent on habitat and time of year. They primarily feed on a number of plants, grasses, fruits, and nuts. Those in the north also feed on spawning salmon. Their diet is composed of primarily carbohydrates, with a small amount of protein and fat. Black bears are not predatory. Most of the protein they ingest is from insects like termites and beetles; a small amount of their diet may also consist of carrion. 

For those that have a long hibernation season, fall is the time that bears pile on the pounds. In order to have sufficient fat stores, bears eat four times their normal calorie intake — around 20,000 calories per day — during the fall. Bears need to consume enough to last after hibernation too, as the food supply may be scarce when they emerge.

8. They Only Socialize During Mating Season

Female black bear with three cubs standing in a wheat field
Mark Moore  / Getty Images

During the majority of their lives, black bears are solitary animals. For breeding purposes, adult bears come together during the summer for a brief mating season before parting ways. Females give birth to an average of two to three cubs every other year. They keep their cubs close for about 18 months, teaching them how to find food, avoid predators, and move about their habitat, before sending them on their way before the next mating cycle begins.