American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) : Barry Kent MacKay

Most of my art features birds, but I love to paint other subjects, especially wildlife, including mammals.  While my favourite mammals to draw and paint are usually the medium-small ones such as squirrels, rabbits, muskrats and so on, I have a passionate fondness for bears.  This oil painting shows a mother American Black Bear with two cubs (they can have one to four, very rarely five, even six). 

Regarding the name of the species, “American” refers to the Americas, as this species lives in wooded and forested areas throughout most of North America, from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador, south as far as Mexico.  The area not too far north of my home, central Ontario, is something of an epicentre for American Black Bears, where they are common and a source of political controversy because while they really are normally shy (although I have never, ever, felt threatened by one) they can overcome a human and cause serious, even fatal, trauma. 

So let’s start with some hints on black bear safety.  First, never, ever, run from a bear. They can outrun you, reaching over thirty miles per hour, and your running makes them think you are a prey species. Most attacks on humans involve dogs, so don’t take dogs into bear habitat and if you must, make sure they are leashed and under control.  If you encounter a bear stay calm, move slowly, back away and make yourself look big, for example, by holding the corners of your coat or shirt and raising them above your head.  A good idea is to carry a green plastic garbage bag and if (and only if) the bear seems threatening, wave and shake it…bears find it confusing and threatening, or so I’m told.  There are also noxious bear sprays that are said to deter them from aggressive attack, but I’d rather put my faith in the plastic bag.  If that does not work and in the unlikely event you are attacked and you are fit and able to, fight like hell and good luck with that, but remember, ninety nine plus percent of the time, it’s the bear who is the more afraid and will leave you alone.  Don’t feed them or encourage them and make sure that if you’re camping, all food is stored in trees away from you where, to the degree possible, bears can’t get to it.  If you live in bear country, do not put out edible garbage or recycling overnight…put it out as close to pickup time as you can. Bird feeders in winter are fine, but stop using them once bears come out of hibernation; they are a common attractant. 

Bears are immensely strong, very intelligent and good at solving puzzles (like how to unscrew a lid or open a door), have excellent senses, good memories and, I’m pretty sure, a sense of humour and enjoyment out of life, although, like humans, they can also get quite grumpy.

American Black Bears in eastern North America are mostly black (with more or less brown snouts), but as you move west, black bears increasingly come in other colours, including varying shades of brown, cinnamon, blonde and even creamy white.  One subspecies, U. a. kermodei, is usually black but a recessive gene causes about ten percent of them to be white or cream-coloured, and they are often called “Kermode” or “spirit bears”.  The kermodei subspecies is found in dense, humid old-growth forest on the central coast of mainland British Columbia, and has huge cultural significance for Indigenous First Nations’ peoples of the region, who work hard to protect them and their habitat.  A small percentage of American Black Bears have white crescents on their chests (although this feature is much more often seen in the Eurasian Black Bear (U. [Selenarctos] thibetanus).

Overall, American Black Bears are adaptive to changing conditions and are the world’s most abundant bear species, although, particularly in the U.S., they inhabit only a portion of their previous range, and were completely extirpated from Prince Edward Island.

In most of their range American Black Bears hibernate, but in a way somewhat different from other mammal species.  Their metabolism slows down, but they still metabolize (thus need) stored fat.  The ova has what is called “delayed development” wherein after fertilization, it does not implant itself into the womb until early winter, November, after which there is a gestation period of about 235 days, meaning the female is normally still asleep, “hibernating” in her den (often in a hollow log or under a root) with, in my region, snow on the ground and little food to be had, when babies are born.  While hibernating, heart rate drops from the normal forty to fifty beats per minute to eight.  The “basal metabolic rate” drops by three quarters.  Body temperature drops and excretion stops, with waste hardening in the colon to form a “fecal plug” while a special hormone, leptin, supresses the bear’s normally hardy appetite for food.

The cubs are tiny when born, about eight inches long, and don’t start to walk until they are over a month old.  It takes 16 to 18 months for them to reach total independence from mom (dad is not involved with upbringing and male bears will, on rare occasion, kill a cub; mother bears are diligent about keeping cubs from adult males, and will send them up a tree at the first hint of danger or if approaching a food source where other bears may be present).  It takes three years to reach sexual maturity and five to reach full size.  American Black Bears are promiscuous, enhancing the likelihood of reproduction, but after copulation females tend to have little patience with their mates.

American Black Bears are omnivorous, eating anything humans might eat, and then some.  Interestingly ant larvae can, at times, form a major component of the diet, and of course they love berries, all things sweet, including honey, and various tree nuts as well as other vegetative materials such as fresh grasses and tree buds.  They can be predatory, and love fish.  They have an incredible sense of smell, so can detect, and find, carrion, garbage and other foodstuffs from considerable distances.  They will kill and eat other mammals, from mice and voles to young hoofed herbivores, especially sickly or abandoned young deer of various species.

This oil painting is 30” X 24” and is on compressed hardboard.  Artists doing realism have to choose a “point of view (POV)”, which is the point from which the subject or scene is viewed, and then think about such things as the light source (out of doors normally the sun, plus reflected light).  I decided to put the sun over the left shoulder of the imaginary viewer who is slightly looking down at the subject, so that shadows are very narrowly cast just to the right of the subjects, which in this case is not only slightly below the POV.  But the bears are on a slight upward slope, coming upward toward the POV.  This created an interesting challenge for me, but that’s what’s fun about making up scenes, drawing, and painting…creating a visual illusion, or impression of what is or would be the reality.    

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

1 thought on “American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) : Barry Kent MacKay

  1. Marilyn Bunker

    That was so interesting about the American black bear. Thanks for posting.
    The painting is lovely with such vibrant colours. Mama bear has quite a job with her cubs. Beautiful.


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