Balancing bear. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 47: Balancing bears and ourselves

Through experiences such as these, people can come better to appreciate the natural world and to care about threats to its well-being.

To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

May 23, 2020

Mama bear and her cub have returned to our patio here in Lenox. After her previous visit, we had hoped that we could move the bird feeders so high by day that she couldn’t reach them and bring them in at night. But we had underestimated mama bear. She arrived minutes after my husband had filled the feeders, at 10:30 in the morning. We were, as usual, alerted by Lily, running from window to window, room to room, barking furiously, leaping out her doggie door to bark a few feet from the house and then darting back inside to bark some more.

Mama bear and her cub. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

We watched the bears for a while, sure that the mother bear would soon realize that the feeders hanging high over her head would be a lost cause and amble off in search of more accessible food.

How wrong we were.

Our bird feeders hang from a cable about 11 feet high strung between two stout trees. Along the cable are several pulleys. Each individual feeder hangs up high at one end of a steel wire that is threaded through the pulley, while the other end is secured onto a cleat attached to the fence below. That way we can raise and lower the feeders, and, we reasoned, they hang too high for any bear to reach.

Testing the wire. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

We certainly underestimated the ingenuity of this mother bear. First, she surveyed the feeders (safflower, thistle, sunflower and nectar) and delicately jiggled a few of the wires to see how that affected them.

Climbing the fence. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

Moving to her favorite safflower seeds, she tried that wire and, realizing that pulling the wire didn’t bring it any closer, dropped the line and proceeded to climb up the fence cables.

Bear success. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

Balancing like an acrobat on the narrow top rail, she rose up, extended her arm to grasp the feeder, pulled her face to it, bit at the mesh column containing the seed, and then began to lick up the seeds that had fallen onto the bottom rim. Meanwhile, baby bear had happily climbed the fence post next to its mother. All this happened within minutes.

By this point, I had run to the kitchen slider, slit it open and yelled for the bear to go away. She startled a bit and came down from the fence. I yelled again, slammed the door shut, grabbed some pot lids, banged them wildly and then threw them on the patio. The bear seemed uncertain, so I slammed the door open and shut, open and shut, yelling all the while. She retreated off the patio, then returned to a new wave of shouting and retreated again. I had forgotten about the cub, who had scampered up a tree out of my sight. The bear was afraid to stay but didn’t want to leave her cub.

The good news is that she again retreated and the baby joined her at the bottom of the hill. We watched them hurrying into the woods, relieved that they were together and that they had left our patio.

It’s now six days later and they haven’t returned. It’s certainly not good for us to have bears on our patio and it’s not good for the bears, either. If they habituate to people, they can become “nuisance” bears, which never ends happily, especially for the bears.

Our reading this excellent reference on black bears in Massachusetts made very clear that until winter, the feeders must go, along with any other bear attractants like unsecured garbage cans and compost.

This experience made me think about my relationship with nature, and especially about my relationship with birds. I have always loved nature and the woods. As a child at a summer camping sleepover, I dragged my sleeping bag away from the other children under the lean-to so that I could sleep alone in the forest. I was an avid birdwatcher. As an adult I have enjoyed hiking, river rafting and camping in the wilderness, but often with outfitters who supply the gear and awaken us in the morning with the smell of bacon sizzling on the fire.

Birdfeeder properly employed. Photo: Eli Newberger

Through experiences such as these, people can come better to appreciate the natural world and to care about threats to its well-being. The downside, however, is that we might view nature as existing more for our own pleasure and benefit than for the benefit, and even the rights, of the plant and animal inhabitants of the natural world.

Here in the Berkshires, nature is all around us. With our feeders outside our window, we bring nature so close that we can follow the red-winged blackbirds’ squabbles over our morning coffee. Yet our run-in with mama bear has made me consider the inherent contradiction between a love of nature for nature’s sake and a love of nature for one’s own pleasure.

The birds bring us pleasure. In the winter, our feeding them helps them to survive. The rest of the year, though, our bringing the birds up close may bring a precious mama bear and her cub up close, to the detriment of us all. And even the birds are better off finding their now-plentiful food in the forest rather than handed to them in suet cages and seed feeders.

I’m reminded of a similar paradox as a parent and grandparent. Sometimes we love our children and grandchildren best by letting them be themselves and take flight.