Berry Beary

“Black bears can survive--and even thrive--on the fringes of civilization, or sometimes right in the midst of it.”
Linda Masterson

Chokecherry thicket before a black bear destroyed it

The chokecherry thicket pre-bear (lower-right), from our 24 May 2021 Picture of the Day

For a little longer*, I live in a wooded area, the house surrounded by a mix of pines, firs, some deciduous trees, and various shrubs and brushy stuff. Many of those last two bear fruit of widely disparate levels of edibility. We have snowberry (Symphoricarpos, also known as ghostberry, waxberry and other names), serviceberry (Amelanchier, and called too many other names to list), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana, also with a host of other names), and more. Most years we have a fair crop of all of these. This year (2021), a year of exceptional drought in a long string of dry years, it seemed to me the bushes had an overload of fruit. Berries came on the snowberry early, and the shrubs were (and are still, at the end of October) loaded. Ditto the chokecherry, which, along with the serviceberry, have lovely blossoms. See the picture series in our August, 2021 article.

We don't harvest any of these: while serviceberries are tasty, relatively sweet, snowberry is astringent, and the appropriately-named chokecherry is just plain awful, the sort of thing you'd eat to stay alive if lost in the wilderness, but otherwise would pass up. I've no firsthand knowledge, but I assume people make something tolerable from them, since they are abundant and easy picking.

Of course, deer will eat anything, and our growing herd of whitetail here consume them all, along with more of my landscaping than I'd like. Interestingly, it's been my observation that deer seem to avoid snowberry through the winter until there's nothing else available. Then they'll start stripping the waxy white berries from those bushes, and before long there will be nothing left.

In these Montana hills we have other hungry critters too, so the deer have to share, or, in some cases, simply stay out of the way.

The Thicket and the Bear

In the middle of this dry summer we heard reports from neighbors that a black bear (Ursus americanus) sow with two cubs had been seen in the area. Separately, a black bear boar had been seen. Neighbors “warn” neighbors about these kinds of sightings so we can clean up any garbage, pet food, bird seed, downed fruit, and other bear attractants. It's been said that a fed bear is a dead bear, and this is proved true again and again every year. Bears quickly become food-conditioned to such easy meals, especially when cubs learn the ropes from their mothers. This can result in property damage, the loss of pets or livestock, and personal injury. Food conditioned bears are sometimes captured and relocated, but just as often are destroyed. Keeping these attractants cleaned up, and where appropriate stored indoors or in bear-proof containers protects us and the bears by minimizing the chances of bear-human encounters.

When I heard about the bears patrolling the area I put away our bird feeders; in summer I normally bring those in each night, put them out again in the morning. With the bears hanging around and being seen anytime during the day, and with plenty of natural food for the birds, it seemed best to eliminate the feeders (we've had a couple destroyed years ago by bears, so I'd learned that lesson!). Otherwise I keep nothing outside to worry about.

Several weeks passed with no more bear reports.

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Around the base of a tall Ponderosa pine is a thicket of chokecherry. We've watched this thicket grow over our 17 years here; it now forms a solid mass of green from ground level upward to about 20 feet (6m). It's quite lovely, and in fall it turns a brilliant gold, that color often hanging on for several weeks. It's among my favorite things during the our generally colorful autumns. Standing on our elevated deck, looking down the hill to this tree and its thicket, I'm a little above the top of the chokecherry, and perhaps 25 feet (17.6m) away.

One day near the end of August I took my morning coffee out on the deck, and noticed the chokecherry thicket had been partially flattened, with a number of the larger trunks broken a few feet above the ground. More had been pulled down and remained nearly flat, but not broken. I walked down for a closer look and found the berries had been stripped from those broken and flattened branches. Bear scat eliminated any doubt as to the culprit. Bummer about the wrecked thicket, which will never again surround that tree with beautiful fall color. But perhaps I could make the bear pay for the damage by providing a photo opportunity. I set up my camera with tripod and the appropriate lens and kept it ready to go inside the back door.

Within a day or two I saw the bear approaching. He (I assume it's the boar, since cubs were not evident) looked quite healthy; his glossy coat so black as to look nearly blue, and large for a local black bear. I grabbed the camera and set up on the deck, my own, personal, private viewing platform safely up out of harm's way, but still quite close to the bear.

That's when I learned how he managed to get to the berries 20 feet above the ground. I watched as he climbed the tree in the middle of the thicket, leaned way out to grab the upper reaches of the bushes, released his hind legs from the tree trunk, and slowly rode the chokecherry to the ground. Ingenious, and fun to watch, except for the total destruction of the chokecherry.

The light could have been nicer on this gloomy morning a little before sunrise, and any exposures I made with the bear in motion are blurred. But the bear paused frequently and sometimes remained motionless as a statue for several seconds, almost posing for me. I got plenty of very sharp captures, and even with the weak lighting they look pretty good.

I'll miss that lovely chokecherry, but then, I'll miss this house and it's surroundings when we move to the new place. Of course, that'll be a whole new adventure!

October, 2021

*We've sold this house and will be moving, perhaps by the end of 2021, into a new home on an open, grassy hillside devoid of trees.

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