Bear sounds and behaviour

Scroll down for audio clips, videos, photos as well as articles illustrating black bear body language and behaviour. Black bears actually have very expressive faces and bodies that can tell us how they feel. I hope this information can contribute to a better understanding of bears and a better co-existence with them.
  
All the cubs you see and hear here were found orphaned, raised at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in a manner that deters them from becoming habituated to people, and released back into the wild at the age of about 16 months. That is the age when young black bears naturally leave their mother. Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter has successfully raised and released over 400 black bears in close to 30 years of operation. It is the only wildlife rehab centre worldwide licensed to also rehab orphaned grizzly bear cubs. They also rehab other wildlife like deer and moose.
 
***Please note that I am NOT a biologist or bear expert, and these are NOT expert opinions. These are my personal interpretations of black bear cub sounds and body language, based on my ten months as a black bear keeper at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter.***

Black bear vocalizations

Bears mostly make loud noises as a warning or if they are in distress. They also make a variety of happy sounds, humming and rumblings, but these are usually fairly quiet and I wasn't able to record them. Because the happy sounds are so quiet, it is also unlikely we would get to hear them in the wild.

A yearling feeling lonely and calling, maybe still for his lost mom:



A very distraught five-month old cub screaming for his mom:


The same five-month old cub calling for his mom, not as desperate anymore:

Black bear body language


The upper lip 

Probably the most expressive feature of a bear's face is their upper lip. It is an excellent mood indicator, because a slightly uncomfortable, grouchy, nervous, or agitated bear will stick it - literally pulling a long face.


This is the upper lip still in normal position, though this bear already has a bit of a grouchy look to his eyes:

And sure enough, now he does feel grouchy and sticks out his upper lip:

Feeling nervous

If a bear is becoming quite unnerved, they often start huffing. This doesn't necessarily mean aggression, it's more like the bear is hyperventilating. It is a warning sound, often used to tell other bears not to come any closer. But I have also observed a bear huffing while putting on a show to impress a female bear he had a crush on.
A huffing bear will push the lower lip out as well, making a pouty mouth. The round eyes and ears flattened backwards mean this bear is feeling scared:

The cub higher up in the tree is nervous about climbing down - keep an eye on his upper lip as he tries to find a way around the other bear:

 This young cub is merely a little bit nervous, shown by the round eyes and tense body stance:

This bear hopes none of the other bears will notice the watermelon:


Feeling curious

Curiosity is usually expressed by pricked up ears and very focussed eyes. Depending on the situation, this can vary quite a bit.
This bear is expressing very typical focussed curiosity:

This bear is also intensely curious and feels assertive enough to come check things out. This is NOT an aggressive body stance (see further down for examples of aggression). His head is up, which means he just wants to investigate:

This is the same bear, feeling curious but this time insecure (ears and nose are busy deciphering the situation). See how his upper lip is protruding just a tiny bit? He is ready to run should there be trouble:

This bear is feeling just mildly curious, indicated by her pricked up ears and focussed glance, but fairly relaxed posture:

And here is the same bear curious about a scent on the breeze. You can see how she is concentrating on her nose by tuning out sound and sight:

Feeling angry and bluff charging

Bears don't like making body contact with strangers. They rarely make physical contact when bluff charging. Bluff charges are almost always about space: bears don't like their personal space invaded by someone who is not their friend. A bluff charge is meant to say: "Get out of my way!", and doing so will usually result in stopping the charge.

An angry bear about to bluff charge will hunch up his shoulders, lower his head (think charging bull), and glare (prolonged intensive eye contact with a bear is understood as a challenge/aggression by them). Ears are pricked up (a sign of feeling assertive). Notice the upper lip?

The bear on the left is bluff charging the bear on the right:

A bluff charge can develop very quickly. Notice the changing body position of the charging bear, and how he immediately stops once the other bear has left his space:


Feeling scared


A scared bear will have his ears focussed on the perceived threat. Eyes are rounded, and the bear may have his upper lip out or huff:

 

Feeling dominant or submissive

Im simple terms, a dominant bear tends to have everything up: ears, head, body posture. A submissive bear does the opposite: ears back, head lower, body posture more insecure.

Of the two bears on the log, the submissive one is on the left:

This little cub is showing submissive body language: ears back, chin tucked down, and veering away:

These two are having a standoff, both have their ears flattened in a non-threatening, submissive way. The right one is sticking out his upper lip more. They are about equal in dominance:

Here is another standoff between to bears similar in rank. Neither one of them wants to make space, and neither one dares bully the other one out of the way:

This is the sound of a low-key standoff between two bears trying to determine who should make way:



Another standoff between two different bears:


These two are also about equal in dominance, despite the size difference. The bigger one to the right has his ears flattened, indicating he is not feeling more assertive than the smaller one. The smaller one is very agitated, as you can tell by his upper lip and tense posture:

A standoff over who should move (if you're surprised there isn't more action - bears prefer not to make body contact in tense situations). Keep an eye on the brown bear on top and how he starts huffing towards the end:


The bear to the right is asserting herself in a threatening body stance (shoulders up, head down, upper lip out). Her folded back ears indicate she will not bluff charge yet:

A similar situation here. The brown bear gives the approaching black bear just a subtle hint to stay away by lowering her head and keeping her assertive hunched up body position. Her ears are back, though, indicating she does not want the confrontation of a bluff charge:


 

The bear inside the den box is the more assertive one: ears up, head down, eyes glaring threaten a bluff charge should the other bear come closer. He is folding his ears back in submission:

The bear to the left is showing submissive behaviour (ears folded backwards, backing away) towards both of the bears he interacts with (he would like to play). Look at the protruding upper lips during the second interaction:


A standoff between two sets of siblings who have been newly introduced. The sounds are by two siblings warning the other group not to come any closer:


Feeling silly and playful


Bears, especially cubs, love to play and be silly. They do have their crazy five minutes where they run and jump around like maniacs. Feeling playful is usually expressed with loose body posture, often a half open mouth, and ears going in all directions.

The bear on the left is nervously (ears back, lip out) asking the other bear to play, but she is not into it:
 The bear on the left is trying to get the other one to play, to no avail:
These play sessions are much more successful. Bears playing with each other usually all fold their ears back to show they are not being aggressive:




 Read more about these bears: 

It takes a village to raise a bear: I had thought thirty six bears would make a lot of noise. But except for the odd soft moan the cubs are pretty quiet. A few of them sit in trees, a couple more are chasing each other around like kids in a game of tag, and one sits comfortably propped up against the chain link fence that separates these orphaned bear cubs from freedom. continue reading

A long journey for a small bear: A tiny bundle of thin brown fur peeks out of the dog transport box with wary eyes. The small bear is suspicious of us: We have just released her into a quarantine enclosure for new arrivals at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter. continue reading

Fun with leaves: The leaves we raked up were a great hit with the hibernation group of 31 bears last week - since then, the chubby cubs have been spending more and more time in their cozy dens. Nine bears, who arrived at the shelter later and are in different enclosures, are likely not going to be hibernating but spending the winter putting on much-needed weight. continue reading

Joy and heartbreak: The rage and desperation of the grizzly cub tearing at the fence are terrible to watch. She roars and roars as she charges at the chain link fence, pulling at the strong wire mesh with her teeth and claws, looking for a weak spot – somewhere to break through and flee. continue reading 

A bucketload of happiness: Carrots are an abomination. At least that’s what Holly, one of the orphaned bear cubs I look after, seems to think. She has yet to eat a single one since she arrived at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter on November 14th, while Berbere, my other furry charge, devours carrots as soon as he gets them. continue reading

How to get a bear's "pawtograph": The sedated black bear cub in my arms feels like nothing more than a scrap of fur. His limbs are loose and relaxed from the sedative, and I lean back so his head doesn’t loll. A wild and sharp smell with an underlying aroma of cloves clings to him and rises up to me. continue reading

NLWS: The hibernation station: Chiselling frozen bear poop off the ground in below -20° temperatures is a fine art I am only beginning to master. It’s all a matter of whacking it from the right angle, with the right force. Superglue is nothing compared to this. continue reading

It's all about attitude: “Do you want to be friends with me?” is an emotionally charged question not just for humans, but orphaned bear cubs as well. It presents itself as soon as the newly arrived little bears at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter can be released from the quarantine cages into larger enclosures and the company of other cubs. continue reading

Seeing the beauty in a bluff charge: The small paws slam against the other side of the quarantine cage door, claws gripping the wire. Huffing two or three times, the bear cub struggles to maintain both grip and the ferocious attitude for another second or two before letting go. continue reading

When bears play musical chairs: I think I’m turning into a helicopter mom. At night I dream about my bears, and in the mornings my first thought has been about Spruce, my furry problem child: Did he get kicked out of his den again or did he manage to defend it? continue reading

Love is in the air - and bear: I think our fourteen-month-old cubs have hit the bear equivalent of the teenage years. Attitudes change faster than you can say “boo”, and there is a general flexing of physical and mental muscles. With no bear is this more apparent than with Berbere, who seems to be in love. continue reading

Waking up from hibernation: Forget Groundhog Day. It must be spring now: our bears are awake. We’ve been anticipating the 31 black bear yearlings who have been in their dens since mid-November to wake up for a while.  continue reading 

Bear release logistics:  Only two more months, and the bear cubs currently in care at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter will be released back into their home regions. The logistics of transporting 44 black bears and one grizzly to sites all across British Columbia seem daunting to me. continue reading

A little bear's dream come true:  Adult bears are mostly solitary animals that don’t go looking for friends. Social skills are learned as cubs, early in life, and one of the fascinating insights that caring for orphaned bears brings with it is witnessing how young cubs make friends. continue reading

Waiting for tragedy: We’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern here at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, waiting for this year’s first little orphans. It’s a weird, contradictory feeling: I don’t want any animal to experience the trauma of losing its mother and find itself in the completely unfamiliar and initially terrifying situation of being taken into human care. continue reading

Getting ready to say goodbye: The heavy log mounted between two posts in the bear enclosure is the latest victim. It has joined four other climbing trees, five den boxes and a piece of ceiling in the roofed part of the pen in spelling out an unmistakable message: my yearling bears want out. continue reading

Farewell, my friend: The black nose sticking out of the feeding hole in the bear barrel twitches, inhaling the multitude of new smells: cedars, wildflowers, road dust. Then a familiar smell - me. The light brown eyes find mine. continue reading 

Trying to save a bear cub's life: As soon as I push the spoon under his nose, he turns away. It’s as if the spoon isn’t full of food, but loaded instead with an invisible power that pushes bear’s head away. We’ve been sitting like this for fifteen minutes already, the cat-sized bear cub and I. continue reading

Saying goodbye: How to say goodbye to the animals I’ve lived, breathed and dreamed for almost ten months? It’s been a time so intense, uplifting and heart wrenching that I almost feel as if the little orphans ate me up and spat me out again in a different shape. I’ve never done work before where I cried so much – tears of sadness, happiness, exhaustion and frustration. continue reading


 

 

2 comments:

  1. Absolutely engrossing and enchanting. Wonderful stuff.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! They are fascinating animals and wear their heart on their sleeve.

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