With Valentine’s Day close in the rearview mirror and the “Decade in Review” fresh in my memory, I’ve decided that this is a good time to devote a full post to one of my favorite wild animals: Albert the black bear.
For those not familiar with Albert from previous posts, he was a resident black bear that I got to know in some capacity while my wife and I were living in the Bella Coola Valley last spring. During our six weeks stay there I had many bear encounters (both black bears and grizzlies), but the vast majority ended with the bear running off through the woods. This is not a bad thing, especially in an area that experiences a fair share of human-bear conflict. But my goal when I head out into nature is to observe animals going about their normal business. This can be a real rarity, especially for animals that are/were hunted or that view us as potential predators. What was most rewarding about my experiences with Albert was that he eventually accepted my presence enough so that he seemed to continue with whatever he was doing even when I was around. Through my repeated interactions with Albert I began to get a feel for him as an individual. This was only possible by watching how Albert reacted to various stimuli and observing his morning and afternoon habits. Just as with people and pets, the behavioral profile (or personality) of wild animal comes together over time, and even with my many interactions, I was only able to scratch the surface in terms of being able to paint a picture of Albert.
There’s a relatively new discipline devoted to the study of animal personalities, and what’s known more technically as behavioral syndromes. In broad strokes this refers to a suite of related behaviors that an individual exhibits within a specific behavioral context (such as when foraging for food), or across contexts (such as associations between foraging behavior, mating behavior, antipredator behavior, etc.). Consider the birds that visit a feeder in your yard or a neighbor’s yard. A flock of chickadees appears every morning just around dawn, and individuals zip back and forth from the feeder to the nearby stand of trees, opening or caching the sunflower seeds they’ve collected from the feeder. Each bird looks the same to our eyes and they quickly blend together into a generic chickadee. If you were to catch those chickadees and give them unique identifiers like colored leg bands or GPS trackers, behavioral differences would begin to emerge. Some individuals might be bolder than others, visiting the feeder in the presence of a possible predator, pushing others off the feeder when they want access to the seeds, and being the first to explore new feeders that appear in the yard. Others may be shyer, less dominant, and less likely to explore new food sources. That there are differences among individuals probably isn’t surprising to most people, especially those who have owned pets, but what some researchers are finding is that there can be consistency in groups of these behavioral traits. Individuals that are bold early in life often remain bold later in life, and those that are more likely to explore their environment are more likely to have broader social networks, and potentially be more dominant.
The point here is that we’re learning a lot about how different individual animals are, and how the behavioral profile of an individual can influence every facet of their ecology. And with respect to Albert, I want to relay a handful of stories about him to provide a sketch of what this bear was like to be around.
Our first meeting:
Five days into our stay at Madeline Cabin in the Bella Coola Valley, I was out exploring some of the local trails that crisscrossed Katie and Dennis’s property and that of the lodge nearby, when I heard a distinctive crunching sound from the woods off to my left. It was late April, and spring was working hard to reclaim the land from the clutches of winter. Most of the deciduous plants were still covered in hard buds that had not yet opened, and the grass was just starting to green up. But the skunk cabbage (or yellow arum) had begun to push through the mud in wet, low-lying areas, and this plant, oddly enough, is sought after by bears that have recently emerged from hibernation. Skunk cabbage gets its name from the stinky aroma it produces (sometimes likened to rotting meat) to attract pollinators like flies. Bears are drawn to it in the early spring because it has a laxative-like effect and helps to remove the waste that has been in their systems all winter. While various components of this plant have been marketed as medicinal, I would not recommend trying this as a homeopathic remedy yourself.
Upon hearing the crunching of leaves and twigs, I froze and looked through the tangle of understory branches. The bear was about 50 feet away and moving parallel to me and the trail. He then cut towards the right, and after a few moments emerged from the brush onto the trail. He looked around, saw me standing on the trail, and took off running away from me. He didn’t run far, however, and after his short bout of exercise, he turned around to assess me again from a safer distance. After a brief appraisal, he turned and resumed his leisurely strolling pace from earlier. I waited until he rounded a corner and then slowly followed after, making sure to give him plenty of time to put some distance between us. When I reached the bend at which he had disappeared, I slowly eased myself around the corner, but he was gone. After a few minutes listening for the snapping of twigs and weighing my option of continuing on the loop trail or backtracking, I opted to backtrack and return to the cabin.
The Icelandic ponies:
About two weeks after that initial meeting, I had my second notable experience involving the bear I now recognized as Albert (Katie and Dennis knew him from previous years and had bestowed the name of Albert upon him). I had run into Albert a couple of times in the intervening weeks, but they were mostly brief encounters. That morning in early May, however, was a bit different.
I was out on my usual morning rounds, tramping through the damp grass in the floodplain of the Atnarko River and trying to absorb everything in the world around me. The air was humming with birdsong from recently arrived migrants, as well as those that had stuck out the winter. Golden-crowned sparrows and American robins kicked up dead leaves along the sides of the trail looking for hidden seeds and invertebrates, and Pacific-slope flycatchers, Wilson’s warblers, and yellow-rumped warblers zipped about in the branches at the edge of the woods. A few days earlier, the lodge next door had set-up a temporary pony paddock in a small clearing down by the river, and this paddock was now inhabited by a group of six Icelandic ponies. The ponies were used to take guests on trail-rides, and they had been moved into this area because it was full of fresh green grass. The lodge uses that particular equine breed because they are alleged to have no innate fear of grizzly bears (grizzlies never having made it to Iceland). This trait is desirable because, unlike Iceland, the Bella Coola Valley has a very healthy population of grizzlies, and most horses, ponies, and mules are apt to panic if they catch the scent of a grizzly or happen upon one on the trail. This usually doesn’t bode well for the person they are chauffeuring around.
I had tried to make friends with the ponies on a couple occasions, but they were decidedly uninterested in friending me. When I came upon their paddock that morning, they were all clustered together a little ways upslope from me, and they were staring intently at the lower corner of the paddock. I followed their gaze, and at the edge of the electric fencing, Albert was contentedly munching away on the fresh grass. I was positioned at one corner of the fenced paddock, and he was about 60 feet away at another corner. He hadn’t yet seen me, so I knelt down, and watched him eat, hoping he would come around the corner into the open so I could get some photos of him eating. Albert certainly knew the ponies were there and would occasionally look their way while chewing on grass, but it seemed more a mild curiosity than anything else.
There was nothing mild about the ponies’ interest in Albert, however, and after a few minutes, the dominant stallion from the group decided it was time to act. He broke from the cluster, and ran down the hill at Albert, stomping his hooves in an exaggerated prance. He ran up right up to the section of fence where Albert had been eating (on the other side), sending Albert running into the bushes. Once safely ensconced in a blackberry thicket about 20 feet from the fence, Albert turned to assess the situation. He and the stallion examined each other for a few moments, and after coming to some sort of understanding, the stallion began feeding, and Albert slowly extracted himself from the bushes. He gradually made his way back towards the fence, although not quite as close as before, and resumed eating. The stallion, meanwhile, had begun eating his way over to the corner where I still knelt in the wet grass. Albert had now come out into the open, and was certainly aware of my presence, but he seemed nonplussed, and continued his breakfast of fresh greens. While taking photos of Albert I could sense the stallion’s close proximity, and I looked over to see him foraging just a few feet to my left. But what really caught my attention was his fully erect penis. He was not simply grazing away on grass; he was engaging in a display of dominance, and it seemed to be directed at me. In hindsight I suspect that it was still related to showing Albert who was boss, and that he was actually coming close to me to ensure my safety now that Albert had moved in my direction.
Albert had no interested in me, however, and the three of us spent an enjoyable (for me anyways) 20 minutes in each other’s company, before Albert wandered into the woods and out of sight.
The electric fence incident:
Two mornings later I wandered down the trail towards the pony paddock and was very surprised to see four of the ponies outside of the electric fence. I was trying to determine how they had escaped when I saw the cause; on the uphill side of the paddock, the fencing lay on the ground. But how had the fencing been knocked over? Had the ponies staged a jailbreak, or had it been an outside job? I looked around for a few minutes trying to make sense of things when the culprit emerged from the bushes at the top of the hill: Albert. There were a few cabins perched on the hill overlooking the paddock area, but they remained empty for most of the year. I had never seen Albert near those cabins, so I was curious as to how he would treat them. He walked past the first one and made his way over to a medium-sized motorboat that was tucked in under an open garage. The boat was up on its trailer, which sported a 5-gallon bucket over the end of the trailer tongue. Albert went over to the bucket, sniffed it and then pulled it off the trailer. He inspected the boat and trailer a little longer, and then vanished around the far side of the cabin.
I waited for a few more minutes to see if he would reappear, but when he didn’t, I continued down the path towards the river. A family of common mergansers navigated the river upstream a little ways, and Canada geese honked in agitation when I appeared on the riverbank. The water level was beginning to get high with all the snow melt from the mountains, and the current had picked up noticeably over the past week. Rather than doing the full loop trail, I returned the way I had come, and upon reaching the paddock, I saw that my way home was now blocked by some of the ponies.
I had not yet interpreted my experience with the stallion as him being protective of me (this only occurred to me later when one of the ponies “rescued” me from an overly curious yearling deer that wanted to inspect me at close range) so I was a little wary of the roving ponies. Rather than risk a close encounter with one of them, I decided that I would skirt around the top of the paddock and return home via the road just above the paddock. I began making my way up the slope keeping an eye and an ear out for Albert, whom I hadn’t seen in 30+ minutes. Just when I reached the section where the fence had been knocked over, I heard some snorts and huffs coming from the other side of a bush, and when I looked up, Albert was staring at me from about 10 feet away. He was clearly surprised and agitated to see me so close, and he issued a few more huffs, and then bluff charged towards me. It was a very abbreviated bluff charge (you can’t get much closer than we already were), but the message was clear. I stepped backwards over the downed fence, and sidled my way downslope a little bit, keeping the useless fence between me and Albert. I spoke gently to him, letting him know I saw him, and was trying to give him some space. When he saw that I wasn’t crowding his personal space anymore, he turned around, and nonchalantly walked away. My heart was racing as the adrenaline surged through my body, but I was very happy with how things had turned out. I hadn’t panicked when he charged and given that I had (unintentially) threatened Albert by showing up unannounced in his face, he had responded in a pretty reasonable manner (for a bear anyways). Moreover he was probably still annoyed at having been shocked when he knocked the fence over. I can think of many people who would have been much grumpier than Albert under those circumstances.
Encounters at the cabin:
Albert showed up at our cabin a couple of times to partake of the crop of dandelions we had growing in our front yard area. I covered some of these visits previously, including the one where he found my wife’s hiking shoe, sniffed it, and then quickly threw it away (see here). But there was another visit that I haven’t covered that is worth recounting.
I had gone off on an afternoon hike, and my wife had stayed behind in our little log cabin to get some work done and do some dinner prep. Her work station was our dining room table, and she sat with her back to one window, but with another set of windows off to her left. My wife gets a little bit of tunnel vision when she is in work mode, but a slight tap on the window right behind her head brought her back to the world. Her assumption was that I had returned from my hike and was gently knocking on the window to get her attention. But when she turned around, she was face to face with Albert who was peering in through the window at her. One can imagine how startled my wife would have been to have her husband morph into a very large bear, and for this bear-husband to be mere inches away. Startled though she was, she didn’t panic, but simply grabbed the bear spray and her video camera and watched as Albert sniffed at the house a few times, did some lawn-mowing, and then moved on. My wife had been cooking garlic, and it’s possible the potent aroma had wafted outside and attracted Albert, who just wanted to see what was cooking. When an invitation to join wasn’t extended, he was very courteous, and went off to find his own dinner.
The telephone pole:
The final story happened towards the end of our tenure in the Bella Coola Valley, and came on the heels of another bear adventure that had ended with me getting a tetanus booster. I was returning home from getting the shot (an hour away in Bella Coola proper), when I came upon Albert just off the main road near our turnoff. I pulled off the road and watched as he waddled up to a telephone pole, stood up and began shimmying against the pole. Bears love a good back scratch, but scratch trees (or rub trees) are for more than just getting at a good itch. They serve as signposts, or message boards for all the bears in the area, relaying important information about who’s there, when they were in the area, as well as information about an individual’s social standing and reproductive state. These signposts are actually used by all manner of animals as can be seen in this video.
A good scratch tree will be used year after year, and the bark can get worn down by all the rubbing activity. Bears also wear impressions of their footprints into the ground at the base of these trees, showing where they stand when rubbing against it. I had come across a handful of these signposts on my wanderings, but this was my first time seeing a bear in action at one.
Albert was very intent on his scratching, and he was clearly doing some messaging while he was there. A steady stream of urine came out while he was rubbing against the pole, undoubtedly infused with a rich array of hormonal signals. At one point he reached up behind his head, grabbed the pole, and then turned and bit into it, gently splintering a small portion of the outer layer. Albert was most likely one of the dominant male black bears in the area, and I suspect that he was sending a message of love to any interested and eligible females, as well as a massage of warning to any males that might wander into his territory.
When he felt as though he had sufficiently made his mark, he got down onto all fours and wandered away, and that was the last I saw of him. I felt immensely privileged to have spent some time with Albert, and that I had been able to watch him be a bear on his terms and in his territory. Hopefully I’ll be able to get reacquainted with him sometime soon.
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About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.