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Hungry black bears across the state are on the hunt for food

State officials are warning residents to keep garbage cans and bird feeders out of the reach of hungry black bears.
State officials are warning residents to keep garbage cans and bird feeders out of the reach of hungry black bears.Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife

It’s the season of indulgence for Massachusetts’ black bears. In these cooling fall months, the bulky creatures are nosing with increased voracity for their favorite snacks — bird feed, discarded dinner scraps, and dog food.

State wildlife officials are warning that the bears, whose population has expanded east into the suburbs of Greater Boston in recent years, could end up in backyards across the state in search of sustenance.

“This is the time of year where bears are making their last push to eat essentially everything they can before they’re in the den and not going to eat again for the next several months,” said Dave Wattles, the Furbearer and Black Bear Project leader at the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “It’s a compulsion to eat everything they can and pack on those last calories to help them survive hibernation.”

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Black bears’ ceaseless hunt for food is a phenomenon known as hyperphagia that rolls around every fall in anticipation of the coming winter hibernation. Inevitably, they lumber into residential areas to raid garbage cans, dumpsters, and bird feeders for anything they deem edible.

“Now is when black bears fatten up for winter,” MassWildlife wrote on Twitter last week. “You can help keep bears wild by removing bird feeders, feeding pets indoors, and securing garbage. Depending on food availability and snow cover, bears typically enter winter dens in November and December.”

While black bears are not aggressive by nature and attacks are rare, Wattles explained, the creatures can weigh up to 600 pounds and have sharp, curving claws. If frightened, they may act out of self-defense and could leave a person with serious or fatal injuries.

So, Wattles said, it’s best to avoid close encounters and minimize access to discarded food or other items that could attract them. To that end, MassWildlife advises residents of suburban and rural areas to store trash cans in a garage or shed, secure any nearby dumpsters, and avoid feeding pets outside.

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Bird feeders are bears’ biggest draw to residential areas, Wattles said, because bird feed is full of fat and nuts and mimics their natural diet.

“That is exactly what they’re looking for this time of year,” Wattles said. “Putting them on your deck or in your backyard is basically training those bears to come to your yard to try to find food.”

The bear population is expanding into Eastern Massachusetts.
The bear population is expanding into Eastern Massachusetts.Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife

The population of black bears in Massachusetts has rebounded dramatically over the last five decades. Their numbers had dwindled into the hundreds in the 1970s, but there’s now estimated to be more than 4,500 across the state, according to MassWildlife.

Most of the bears are concentrated west of Worcester, but in recent years the creatures have wandered east. There is now a sizable population of bears between interstates 495 and 95, and a few have even traveled farther.

Recall Boo Boo, the intrepid young black bear who galavanted through towns on the South Shore over the summer before being struck and killed by a medical van? He’s one of two spotted in southeastern Massachusetts towns this year, and dozens that have graced that region in previous years.

By now, Wattles said, about half of the female black bears in the state have retreated into their dens to give birth. The other half, along with most male bears, will keep scrounging for food for about a month.

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But there are a select few who will forgo hibernation entirely and continue the hunt for accessible bird feeders and trash receptacles through the winter.

“Every year we have bears that remain active all winter long because they can take advantage of the bird feeders and other food sources that are left out — that’s enough to keep them going,” Wattles said.


Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.