Although black bears (Ursus americanus) spend the winter hibernating in New England, there are still opportunities to find signs of bear activity from previous seasons or previous years. For example, on a recent walk in Asheville, MA with naturalist and tracker Kathy Dean, we found a tree sprinkled with claw marks. Discovering a tree marked by a black bear climbing activity is not uncommon, since these animals are known to forage in oak trees for acorns, in beech trees for beech nuts, and in black cherry trees for their fruit, as well as in rotting trees for insect larvae. However, this particular tree is a red maple, which doesn’t produce fruits or nuts desirable to bears. It was also not rotting, which meant insects weren’t likely the target. So why would a bear bother climbing so high up in this tree?
In addition to food, another reason bears will climb trees is to hide. They will do so if chased or threatened, but a mother bear will also have her cubs climb up into a tree to stay safe while she goes foraging for food elsewhere. Such a tree is occasionally referred to as a “nursery tree.” Although the claw marks on this tree are fairly large, cubs tend to stay with their mother between 16 to 18 months before setting out on their own, so the climber may have been a yearling cub. At one year, a well-fed cub can weigh more than 100 pounds.
If you look closely, there are two main kinds of claw markings on the tree trunk. The first are shorter marks (indicated by the blue arrows below), often seen in opposing sets, from where the bear wrapped its paws around the trunk from either side (in a “bear hug” so to speak). These are more controlled gripping marks, which were likely left by the front limbs while climbing. The second type of marking appears as longer scrapes (indicated by the red arrow below). A couple pairs of these marks are directly above each other, and tend to scrape in more of a vertical direction. These were likely caused by the back paws slipping slightly as the bear tried to walk its hind limbs up, or through somewhat controlled sliding of the back claws along the trunk as the bear climbed back down the tree.