Amicable Sounds

Black Bear

Leonard and I were walking along Modoc National Forest Road 40N11A where the 2017 Cove Fire destroyed over 30,000 acres near Adin CA. The forest is recovering and the understory is thick. Charred trees still stand as grim reminders of the fire. A profusion of birds have returned to the area. We counted 31 different species on a recent 4 mile hike.

As we approached the ridge atop Fox Mountain I heard a grunting off to the side of the road. My first thought was a sooty grouse, as the sound definitely resembled the grouse’s call. We turned and saw a black bear with two cubs. So exciting! The mother bear (Ursus americanus) immediately ran off with the cubs in the lead. By the time I got my camera up and focused, the bears were already threading their way through the burned trees. I will sometimes follow, at a distance, a black bear in hopes of a decent picture. But following a mother and cubs – maybe not. This poor picture had to suffice.

Having never thought much about bear vocalizations, I did some research once back home. Black bears are shy and elusive and generally avoid confrontation. Grunts and tongue clicks (clucking) are considered amicable sounds. They are used by mothers with their cubs or when approaching another bear to mate or play. We cannot “talk to the animals” but think the grunts were the mother bear gathering together and instructing her cubs to leave the area. (Tapes of sooty grouse calls and black bear grunts sound very similar.)

Leonard and I began to speculate what a bear might eat in that burned-out region. About a half mile further down the road we came upon an entire hillside covered in ripe serviceberries. While black bears are largely vegetarian, they always appreciate meat. Berries and fleshy fruits, acorns, and pine nuts are staples of their diet. In addition to the serviceberries, elderberries and bitter cherries are returning to the burn area in abundance. Many oaks that survived the fire are laden with acorns and enough mature ponderosa pine remain to feed at least a few bears. However, the mother and her cubs may have to share a few of their serviceberries with me. I keep having visions of serviceberry pie and jam.

As an aside: One of the most heart-wrenching pictures I ever saw was taken by a friend whose cattle range free on the Modoc National Forest in the summer. After the Cove Fire he was riding through the area to assess how many of his cows had perished when he came upon the charred remains of a black bear. It had climbed a tree to escape the fire and fallen to the base of the tree when the fire killed it.

On a happier note: The black bears are returning to the devastated area.

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