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Here's how to handle bears in your yard

A family of black bears surveys the scene below. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

It's that time of year again, folks. Bears and birds and bird feeders! Indeed, now that many of us are starting to think about putting out the hummingbird and oriole feeders and are enjoying the return of other birds to our backyard bird feeders, chances are good that if you live in bear country then Mr. Bruin might come for a visit, too.

Last summer my fly-through feeder, mounted on top of a stout post, was twice knocked down by a bear. And twice I repaired the feeder and mounted it back on top of the post, only the second time I didn't put any black-oil seed into the feeder (I also didn't put the feeder back on the post until two weeks had passed by).

Over the years I've had other bears come for visits as well. I've experienced resourceful bears remove my suction-cup style hummingbird feeders off of my windows, have watched bears licking sunflower seeds off the ground, and have even had a few bears knock down my suet feeders. There was even one particular bear that licked moths off my picture window while I laid on the couch and watched him.

So, what's a bird-feeding enthusiast supposed to do in bear country? Put up barrier fences around our feeders? Stay up all night on guard? Keep the lights on? Well, I almost hate to say it, but if a black bear comes to eat your birdseed, your best bet is to quit feeding the birds entirely — or at least for awhile, anyway.

Yes, removing the feeders, the seed, the feed, the hummingbird juice, the oriole jam, the suet cakes — what have you — is the best thing to do when a bear pays a visit and doesn't go away. By removing anything that tastes or smells good, chances are excellent that your bear will amble off in short order. Once the food is gone, your friendly neighborhood bear is likely to seek happier hunting grounds elsewhere. Put another way, you need to retrain your bear.

When experiencing problems with black bears, what we need to ask first is, "Why is there a bear in my backyard anyway?" Almost always it's because of food. The sweet smelling hummingbird sugar-water, grape jelly oriole food, black oil sunflower seed, and scrumptious suet cakes are delicacies that bears can hardly resist. Barbeque grills, bowls of cat and dog food, a compost pile, gardens, and garbage receptacles are fair game, too.

Sometimes, especially when natural foods are scarce, a black bear's drive to eat might become so overwhelming that some of its natural wariness around people and our homesteads might become temporarily reduced. And when this happens, bears find themselves in trouble with people, which is precisely why it's recommended to avoid feeding birds altogether from April 15 to October 15.

And contrary to what some people might say, wild birds will do just fine without our feeding them. But if it's insisted that summertime bird feeding will continue regardless of bears, then be aware that, depending on where you live of course, a black bear might find its way to your backyard someday. And if that should occur, and you wish to continue feeding your birds, there are several things you can and should do.

If you don't want to quit feeding your feathered friends, consider stopping at least for a week or two (two weeks is best). Remove all of your feeders, put them in a secure location (inside the garage is good!) and clean up any residual seed or other bird foods from the ground or other areas. As soon as your bear realizes that the food is gone, it will soon be gone, too. And don't forget to remove cooking grills, garbage, and pet food as well.

Or, consider removing your feeders and food each night for the same period of time and placing your feeders, birdseed, and other foods back outdoors during the daytime. Keep in mind, however, that hungry bears don't just eat at night (although they are more active during nighttime).

If these suggestions don't suit you, try suspending your feeders 10 or more feet above the ground and away from buildings, poles, and trees. Use a rope and pulley system to retrieve and fill your feeders. Just realize that black bears are very adept climbers. It's surprising how nimble a black bear can be when it comes to climbing.

You may also consider planting a hummingbird flower garden instead of feeding hummingbirds with sugar-water feeders. Other ways to attract birds without feeding them is to install plenty of nest boxes and nesting structures, put out birdbaths and grit, and to provide dusting sites for your wild birds.

As such, learning to live with black bears is important for anyone residing or recreating in bear country. Black bears are fascinating yet shy mammals that, because of keen noses and large appetites, sometimes find themselves — through no fault of their own — in a little trouble, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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