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Meet Your New Neighbors: The Black Bears

WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. More black bears are finding ready food and comfortable homes in suburban Westchester County. It’s becoming important for you and your children to learn how to live with them safely, and avoid attracting them to your yards.

As a species, black bears are thriving and expanding their ranges. Many of our bears are young seeking new territories of their own. To get here, they’re swimming across the Hudson River and hiking south down the Appalachian and other trails. A smaller but growing group has already settled in and is rearing cubs. They feel safe in northern Westchester’s forest and open spaces, and the backcounty woods of Fairfield towns.

Bears are solitary creatures. Males interact with females only during the mating season, so if you see a bear with cubs it is probably the mother. Unlike their much larger western cousins, the grizzly bears, female black bears are not as protective of their cubs. They’ll usually retreat from humans, even if it means abandoning the cub temporarily. That said, it is never a good idea to get between a mother bear and her cub.

The solitary bears that hang around homes are probably young and hungry. Their keen noses smell birdseed, cooking or garbage. Once they find an easy food source, they’ll remember it and return so don't make your home a fast food stop.

To keep bears away from your yard, take your birdfeeders down in early April, or stop stocking them. You can put them up again in November as bear activity slows.

If you keep your garbage cans outside, secure them properly -- and remember, a bear is strong! The typical wooden boxes most of us use for our garbage cans should be chained shut. Sprinkling ammonia inside the garbage bags and cans will also deter them. Don’t put garbage cans out on the road the night before pick-up. Bears and raccoons feast on this mistake.

If you compost, you might want to eliminate some of the sweeter smelling ingredients like melon rinds for now.  If you barbecue outdoors, clean the grill before the end of the evening. For bears, residual smells from cooked food are a homing signal.  If you feed your pets outside, take in all uneaten food and dishes before dark. Better yet, don’t feed pets outside in areas where bears have been reported.

Never feed bears deliberately. Not only is it against the law, it’s unsafe. They become aggressive if they know food is available and is being denied them.  If you teach them your home is not a food source you have nothing to worry about. If you teach them you are a culinary pit stop, you can expect them to get more curious and pushy. They might even try getting into the house, to look for more food. Pass this story on to your neighbors, so they won’t feed bears, either.

Bears are omnivorous, eating seeds, berries, nuts, carrion, grubs, eggs, honey, rodents and small, penned livestock. They’re not natural hunters, so your pets are generally safe outside. They’re unlikely to chase down a dog or cat.

What about chance encounters with black bears?  In general, they’re not dangerous to humans.  The U.S. Forest Service says that fewer than 30 people have been killed by black bears in the U.S. during past 100 years. Still, these are large animals, in the 300-pound range in our area, equipped with large teeth and claws. Understanding their movements is essential to enjoying a sighting without fear of harm.

Like all animals, bears sense your emotions and appearance, so you want to look as confident and large as possible. They generally fear humans. You can send them on their way by yelling, waving your arms and banging pots or other loud sound makers.  On one 100-degree day, on a trail by a cool stream, I once had to chase away a 400-pound bear four different times. Every time we met, I put my arms up and shouted and he obediently left. You can also throw sticks and stones through the underbrush to make it sound as if other people are coming.  Always provide the bear with an escape route.

On family hikes, keep your children with you – during bear encounters, they can make noise, too. Tell children not to run. If they are near the house, they should face the bear, yell loudly and slowly walk backwards to the door.  If they are further from home, they should yell and pound the ground with a stick or their foot. If the bear advances, throw sticks and stones towards it. It will usually retreat. Don’t be scared if a bear rises up on its back feet. It is not, as the movies suggest, preparing a charge, it is just trying to see and smell better.

Black bears seeking food will sometimes use threats or bluffs to get it. They exhibit a behavior called “blowing,” where they lay back their ears, clack their teeth, make short lunges, slap the ground or trees and do so in an explosive way for maximum effect.  They know these actions work well when communicating with other bears, so they try it on humans.  Shouting back at them and looking as large and stern as possible will usually convince the bear to retreat. A study by the National Park Service showed that bears sometimes are harder to chase off after they have begun eating so don’t give them the opportunity to do so in your yard.

It’s exciting to spot a bear. They’re beautiful, graceful animals, and are re-establishing a vital link in our eco-system that had disappeared for many years. All we have to do is teach them that our yards are not feeding grounds, and then admire those we’re lucky enough to see.

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