The woods are ablaze in color and activity – from not only color-thirsty outdoor recreationalists, but also the local black bear population along the Shawangunk Ridge and Catskill Forest Reserve. Black bears (New York’s only bear species) are in the midst of what’s referred to by biologists as hyperphagia: a fancy way of saying “extreme eating,” whereby they forage robustly for massive quantities of food high in fat. According to Mohonk Preserve research ecologist Megan Napoli, this period begins in late summer and continues into the fall until cold temperatures begin to become more regular, typically in November. From that point on, bears begin to eat less and their metabolism starts to slow in preparation for winter.
Jeremy Hurst, the head of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Wildlife Bureau Section, concurred with Napoli that bears are busy foraging for high-fat foods in the fall when they enter “rapid food consumption [hyperphagia], packing on the pounds for the coming winter.” Both experts also noted that bear activity is very much impacted by the weather and food source availability. “If acorns and beechnuts are abundant and snow comes late, bears may be active longer,” said Hurst. Conversely, if food is scarce and/or snow comes early, bears may den earlier.
While many children’s books talk about bears “hibernating” for the winter and going into a deep slumber for months, Napoli said that contrary to popular myth, bears are not “true hibernators.” Their winter activity “would be more accurately described as denning. Bat species, chipmunks and woodchucks all enter a state of suspended animation where body temperatures fall close to freezing, and metabolism slows dramatically.” Black bears’ metabolism slows down, but not nearly to this extent, according to Napoli: Their core temperature “only falls about 12 degrees [F] and they enter more of a deep sleep, but can still be awakened relatively easily, especially if a period of warmth occurs in the winter.” During these spells of warm weather, bears can emerge from their winter den to feed. With increasingly milder and warmer winters in the Hudson Valley due to global warming, it would not be unusual to observe bears out and about throughout the winter.
Weather is a big determinant in how quickly bears begin to den and how long they stay in their sleepy state, but so is the sex of the bear and the quantity of food sources available to it. “Time of denning fluctuates by sex and age of the animal and food availability,” said Hurst. “Typically, females with cubs den first, then females without cubs, then male bears. On average, most female bears in southern New York will be in dens by the end of November and males by mid-December.”
Black bears breed in June or July and have their cubs while denning, in January or February. According to the DEC, these litters include two to three cubs on average, which stay with the mother bear for approximately one-and-a-half years. As warm weather becomes more consistent, the bears will emerge from their dens on a more regular basis around late March to early April.
While marveling at the changing leaves and watching the squirrels leap about gathering black walnuts, do not be surprised to see black bears lumbering through the woods in search of an autumnal harvest as they pregame their winter rest.
To learn more about black bears, tune into DEC bear biologist Jonathan Russell’s presentation on the beloved giant of the woods during a webinar that he conducted back in March of 2022 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdN_5bi0Rl4.
EHD death rate down in local deer
In other news from the woods, the DEC has received reported deaths of white-tailed deer from epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) from various areas in the Hudson Valley – but thus far, nowhere near the numbers reported in the fall of 2021, which took a noticeable toll on the deer population, with 550 deer mortalities caused by EHD in Ulster County alone. “The only confirmed cases of EHD or bluetongue are from Dutchess, Rensselaer and Suffolk counties,” said DEC wildlife pathologist Kevin Hynes.
The Mohonk Preserve, which offers seasonal hunting for deer and wild turkey in certain areas of its 8,000-acre not-for-profit preserve, saw a significant decrease in the deer harvest in 2021, but thus far has received no reports of deer deaths from EHD.
EHD is a viral disease of white-tailed deer that is transmitted by midges (Culicoides), also referred to as “no-see-ums” or “punkies.” The disease is not transmitted directly from deer to deer, and humans cannot be infected by contact with deer or bites from midges.
External signs of EHD include fever, small hemorrhages or bruises in the mouth and nose of the deer (which is where the name “bluetongue” originates). It also creates swelling of the head, neck, tongue and lips, and infected deer appear lame or dehydrated. After being infected via midges, deer will seek water sources to ease their dehydration, but die within an average of 36 hours. Carcasses are often found by water bodies, identified by bloating, and decompose rapidly.
There were significant EHD outbreaks in the Hudson Valley region in 2020 and again in 2021, but thus far, deaths due to the virus have been minimal. Updated numbers can be found at https://cwhl.vet.cornell.edu/article/epizootic-hemorrhagic-disease-white-tailed-deer-updated.
Outbreaks of EHD are most common in the late summer and early fall, when midges are abundant. According to Hynes, “The first hard frost is expected to kill the midges that transmit the disease, which would end any EHD outbreak.” He added that “The dead deer do not serve as a source of infection for other animals, because the virus is not long-lived in dead animals.”
If EHD is suspected in any deer death or illness, DEC staffers encourage people to make reports so that they can have the carcasses examined and tissues tested for DNA to confirm the diagnosis and get an accurate picture of the disease’s impact on the population. To learn more, go to the DEC’s website at www.dec.ny.gov/animals/123773.html#:~:text=Epizootic%20Hemorrhagic%20Disease%20(EHD)%20is,deer%20or%20bites%20from%20midges.