The black bear is one animal that has always caught our imagination in a deep way, with them being featured in our legends and folklore. Being the smallest amongst the three species of bears in North America, they can be found practically all over the continent, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and from Canada in the north down to Mexico in the south.
The American black bear is about 5 - 7 feet in length, weighing between 125 and 400 pounds. Its body is large, with a short tail, a long snout, round ears, and small eyes. Its shaggy fur is generally uniformly black colored all over the body apart from its muzzle, which is brown in color, and light-colored markings that sometimes occur on the chest. While the black bears that occur in the eastern parts are black colored, the ones that are found in the western parts range from black to blond, cinnamon shade of brown, and chocolate brown. There are also those that have whitish blue fur, which are called glacier, or Kermode. Their lifespan can range from 20 - 30 years in the wild, although most of them do not live beyond their 10th year.
While it usually walks on all its four legs, it can also walk and stand on its hind legs. Its typical shuffling kind of walk is due to it being flat-footed, and since the front legs are slightly shorter than the hind legs. Its paws are equipped with claws that are non-retractable, which are used for climbing, digging, and tearing. Despite its strength and size, it is quite agile and deliberate when it moves.
Despite much of its habitat being rooted out due to plowing, axing, and coming under the bulldozer, the plucky animal has managed to adapt and survive. While they will eat just about anything, they have a preference for nuts, berries, honey, plants, and grass, and are also known to feed on fish, small animals, and carrion. Occasionally, they also kill the calves of moose or deer for food.
With the onset of fall, the bear will start gaining a lot of weight by eating enormous amounts of food, so that its body fat reserves sustain it through the hibernation period in the winter. Although, when there is a lull in the cold weather, it will awaken and have brief forays outside to feed.
Being highly adaptable, this bear can be found in a wide variety of habitats. Although, it prefers wooded areas that are rich in ground vegetation and have plenty of nuts and fruits. It also occurs in the Tundra regions of the north, and sometimes, they will even be found foraging in meadows or fields. Except for the mother and her cubs, the male has a tendency of being a solitary creature. The males will usually be found foraging singly, although if food is available plentifully in an area, they will feed in groups. Females give birth and stay in their den with their cubs all through the winter.
By the time the thaw sets in, in spring, and the bears begin emerging from their dens, the cubs are energetic and inquisitive balls of fur. The mother weans them sometime from July to September, during their first year, with them staying with their mother all through their first winter. By the time the second winter arrives, they usually become independent and are able to fend for themselves.
The survival of the cubs depends completely on the mother's skill of teaching them how and where to find food, what is edible, where to make their den, and where and when to find shelter from the weather or danger.
Despite all the mother's meticulous efforts of teaching survival skills to her cubs, most of them do not live out their full lifespan, falling prey to their main predator, man, due to being hunted as game, loss of their habitat because of man encroaching into them, poaching, road-kills, and so on.
Although they prefer avoiding humans, and are regarded as non-aggressive, except when the animal feels threatened, or in order to protect its young, or if it has suffered an injury, many people think wrongly that the black bear is a vicious animal, and hence, kill them on sight when they encroach and occupy their habitat and come across them. Another serious threat these days is the demand for their paws and gallbladder, which are used for medicinal purposes in Korea, Japan, and China.
Several states in the US list the American black bear as endangered, threatened, or rare (although they continue to be hunted in some states as game). Because of better appreciation for this unique creature, and a gradual change in some people's mindset, the bear is reviving in their numbers from being close to extinction in many areas. Nevertheless, they are still in danger.