How about that? A new twist to Beldingville bears, featured here last week after a harrowing incident that came this way from a local woodsman who, descending Ashfield’s distinctive, gumdrop-shaped Mt. Owen, ran into trouble.
For anyone who missed it, that tale involved Jack Shea, a retied 68-year-old Eaglebrook School teacher and Shelburne Falls native who lives off Beldingville Road in Ashfield. There, quite by chance, Shea became the unintended target of what unfolded like a “bluff charge.” Then, a few minutes later, he was indeed the intended target of aggressive body language from the same large, nervous black bear that had previously aimed its black fury at Shea’s 2-year-old black Lab bitch, Nye, rambling carefree in her neighboring forest.
Shea survived unscathed the first charge that came within spitting distance, then was able to short-circuit the second challenge by shouting at the bear walking downhill toward him. His pet wasn’t so fortunate. No, frisky, young Nye absorbed a swat from the indignant, perturbed, feeding bear that was likely surprised while devouring sweet, salubrious wild blackberries on the edge of thick, thorny logging slash. The bear’s quick, powerful swipe resulted in several abrasions across Nye’s upper chest, two of which were deep enough to require eight stitches at the Greenfield veterinary hospital Shea visited for repair the next morning, after discovering his pet aggressively licking at the scabs.
But, enough of that story, told in detail last week. On to a new tale emanating from the same Ashfield neighborhood. From there, a reader chimed in by email to share another fresh bear story that immediately attracted my interest, not to mention that of Westfield State University wildlife biologist John McDonald, a bear expert to whom I forwarded Nancy Garvin’s thorough, well-written narrative along with my response. The blow-by-blow narrative told of a situation I immediately suspected to be unusual. But, being no expert, I reached out to credentialed McDonald, who confirmed the rarity of what Garvin had witnessed.
Garvin lives a mile and a half away on the same Beldingville Road section of Ashfield where Shea’s incident occurred. She and husband Lester Garvin, of Lake Hitchcock mapping fame these days, are beekeeping hobbyists and thus must be alert for bears, which can be a nuisance around honey hives. Plus, husband Les has a deep interest in wildlife, having devoted undergraduate and graduate studies to wildlife biology at the University of New Hampshire and UMass-Amherst. So, let’s just say the Garvins are not strangers to bears.
On July 21, Nancy walked out on her back porch looking for her husband and had the most peculiar sighting unfold before her disbelieving eyes. First, there was a good-sized bear cub standing a short distance away at the garage door behind her husband’s truck, parked inside. With sweet-smelling beekeeping equipment inside, she figured the bear was interested and about to investigate, so she yelled at the cute ball of black fur and was seemingly ignored.
When she started down the steps, two smaller cubs “came tumbling out of the garage on the other side of the truck.” Then, when she yelled again, another cub, the same size as the bigger one she first saw came out behind the smaller ones. It gets better. Soon, a fifth bear, much larger, assumed to be an adult sow, came out on the same side of the truck as the first cub, and there they stood, all five of them — a sow with what appeared to be two cubs from this year and two from last year. No, not a common sight.
“I yelled at the mother and she stood up and looked at me before turning and heading away from the garage,” wrote Nancy, who started to follow and realized the cubs were scrambling up a nearby tree. “So I stayed where I was until the mother collected the young and headed off.”
Of course, husband Lester knew that this configuration of sow and cubs from separate litters was unusual. He had studied bears and was quite sure females had cubs every other year, raising their young into their second spring before rejecting them and finding a mate and start a new family in the winter den. Curious, the Garvins told experienced bear hunters in town what Nancy had seen and received unanimous confirmation that it was unusual for a sow to be with cubs of two different age classes.
When I myself read her tale, I immediately responded to tell her I concurred with the assessment but had forwarded my response to McDonald, who I was certain could add much insight, maybe even speculation as to why the five bears were together. The man did not disappoint. He confirmed the rarity, admitted he had heard a few similar tales, and offered a few hypotheses:
• 1.) Pehaps the cubs were the same age but different sizes. Litters of four are not uncommon and there can be some cubs that get bigger faster within the litter. “However, I’m betting that if you say two were a lot bigger than the other two, that they really were.”;
• 2) Maybe it was just a coincidence that the sow and her two cubs found the garage and beekeeping supplies at the same time the two yearlings happened to be there. Yearlings usually leave the mother in late May or early June, but often stay with each other for weeks or months before permanently separating. So, yes, it is possible that they just happened to be there together … and, if so, the yearlings would still act as subordinates to the adult female;
• And, finally the third and most interesting scenario, 3) Even though bears do have a breeding season, usually in late May through August or so, unlike deer, which ovulate on a regular basis and can only breed within a short time window (a day or two per month), there is evidence that black bears are induced ovulators and only shed eggs in the presence of a male. Females with new cubs usually won’t associate with males and drive them off. Males will sometimes try to kill new cubs, the thinking being that they don’t know who the father is, but if they kill the cubs, the female will be available to breed that year. … “What could have happened in this case is that the female could have been separated from her new cubs for some time during the breeding season last year (cubs can live on their own in June or so of the first year), and they were apart long enough for her to encounter a male and get bred before reuniting with her cubs. Once reunited, she would have kept those cubs with her (pregnant) and given birth to new cubs in this past winter’s den.”
Asked if a sow would possibly adopt orphaned cubs crying out for their lost mother, McDonald said he doubted it.
“Once sows are out of their dens and free-ranging,” he wrote, “they likely would not respond to cubs not their own. I believe biologists have attempted to foster cubs with females with litters during the post-denning season and have always failed. Sows either kill or abandon them. On the other hand, it is pretty easy to do so while the sows are still in their dens.”
McDonald asked the Garvins to keep and eye out for future visits by the same extended bear family, and said he hopes that publicizing this unusual sighting might coax out additional reports from the people living in the same neighborhood who see or have seen this same unlikely grouping of bears.
If you want to read a book with much expert insight about bears, bear behavior and bear interaction with human beings, pick up a copy of “Grizzly Years,” by Doug Peacock.
A Green Beret Vietnam vet who returned to the states in 1967 and needed time to regroup and process out his identity, Peacock lived for many years studying grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the Washington State. He named many of these massive beasts, could identify many from afar, learned their habits and the way they interacted socially with other bears, and survived more than one “bluff charge” while trying to get close-up photos.
I would recommend this book on many levels as one of my better reads over the last few years. Of course, I knew Vietnam vets who returned home and “drifted” for many years before re-entering society. They didn’t wander off to live in the wild around grizzlies, but they were dealing with many of the same issues that troubled Peacock.