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About Bears (and Other Animals)

  

Hundreds of times in a summer season, a visitor will buttonhole a ranger and ask, "Are there any bears?" Current estimates are that there are between 300 and 500 black bears (Ursus americanus) in the park. People like bears because they are somewhat like us. They're mammals, they have cute kids, and they like to eat. But, there are also many differences. Black bears are the largest mammal in Virginia. Weighing only about half a pound at birth, they can grow into 300-to-500 pound adults. Bears grow so large because they have large appetites for just about any kind of food. Although black bears are able to take down animals as large as adult deer, they rarely do here. A Shenandoah bear's diet is 90 percent vegetation - acorns, hickory nuts, wild cherries, apples, berries, roots, plants, and grasses. Five percent of their diet is insects - mainly bees, ants, wasps, beetles, and their larvae. If you are out hiking in midsummer you will see a lot of evidence of their seeking insects and larvae. Large rocks and logs are strewn about as the big bears turn them over looking for tiny insect morsels. Similarly, a large freshly dug hole is probably the result of a bear digging out an underground bee's nest. In June, before deer fawns are fleet enough to escape, bears catch a few of them.


Black Bear
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Bears gain a lot of weight in the fall as they prepare for hibernation. If you think you put on weight quickly, take heart. A problem bear that was caught on August 29, 2001, weighed 127 pounds. It was relocated to the park boundary. Just six weeks later, it was legally shot during hunting season. It had almost doubled its weight to 250 pounds. In Shenandoah, because of our climate, all bears may not truly hibernate. Park rangers report seeing bears in every month. During the winter the metabolic rate of bears decreases. They sleep or doze the winter away in their dens only rarely venturing out. Some may truly hibernate. In spring, bears emerge much lighter, having used up their stores of body fat.

Mating season for bears is midsummer and it is the only time that males and females hang around with each other. After mating, males wander off. Females rear their cubs alone the following year. By the middle of the second summer, the female chases her cubs away. There is not enough room in the winter den for the "teenagers" and the one to four cubs (mostly two) that will be born to a female during the winter every other year. Most nuisance bear behavior tends to occur during the mid to late summer. Adolescent bears, suddenly bereft of motherly advice, may steal food from people in developed areas because it's easy.

As big, brawny, and sharp clawed as these wild animals are, their problem behavior is normally limited to stolen food, broken coolers, torn tents, or scratched cars. Black bears rarely cause injury to humans. Most often bears are harassed by people who get too close to them. Well that's a rather general background. Most visitors want to know what they should do if they suddenly come across a bear on a trail or in a campground:

1) Stop

It may sound silly, but make sure the bear is aware of you by stopping and talking to it. "Hey Bear, Yo Bear" is fine. The bear will probably stop when it sees or hears you and hightail it away from you as fast as possible.

2) Take extra precaution around a cub or a mother and cub.

Mother bears are very protective of their cubs. Never get between a mother and cub and if you see a cub back off slowly, because the mother will be nearby and will not be happy to find someone near her cub.

3) Take photographs from a distance.

If you are fortunate enough to see a bear, it's is fine to take a picture from a distance. It is foolish and dangerous to try and pose with a bear. You will almost surely be intruding on their space and causing an annoyance which may provoke a response on their part. Bears are wild animals.

4) Try and tell which way the bear wants to go.

Walk slowly back the way you came. Once the bear moves off you may continue when it is a safe distance away.

5) Do not run.

That can trigger a chase response from the bear.

6) Avoid direct eye contact.

Do not try and stare down the bear, it may consider that a threat.

7) Do not drop your pack, water bottle, food, or outerwear.

Doing so might encourage a bear to stick around next time hikers come by, to see what goodies might be available.

8) Realize that bears are very good at climbing trees

Trees are not a safe refuge.

9) If you are backcountry camping:

  • Hang food in a tree at least 10 feet above the ground and 4 feet from the trunk of a tree.
  • Hang food on a storage pole provided at backcountry huts.
  • Store food in park-approved storage containers.

If a bear enters your campsite, make noise to try to scare it away.

 

  The Mountain Lion

The mountain lion (or cougar) is thought to have been extirpated in the Blue Ridge by the 1880s. In the wilder parts of Virginia a few of them lasted into the twentieth century, but barely.

Nevertheless, reports of cougar sightings in the park keep coming in. Several visitors each year report seeing a cougar on a trail or fire road. When asked to describe it, one of the first things they mention is the long, thick tail, which means for sure that it wasn't a bobcat they saw. Many of the observers have had enough training in zoology to make them reliable witnesses. A reliable witness is one who has seen mountain lions elsewhere in captivity, or in the wild, is good at estimating animal size from a distance and distinctly knows the difference between a mountain lion and other cats.

In Virginia no one has shot a mountain lion; no one has found a dead one; and no one has taken a recognizable picture of one. Heatwole thought the evidence that it lives in Shenandoah, or at least passes through from time to time, overwhelming. If you do an Internet search for bobcat or cougar and Virginia you will see that the debate continues and that some of the references relate to Shenandoah National Park. You may even find that there has now been a definitive sighting.

 

  Deer


Whitetail Buck
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

There are many deer in the park, all of the same species, the Virginia white-tail. The tail is broad, and white underneath; when held aloft it's a signal flag that means "follow me." A fawn can follow its mother at a fast pace through broken cover without getting lost - by following the white flag. Heatwole once saw a couple of hound dogs chasing a buck and two does through Milam Gap, and all three were showing their white tails. Suddenly the two does veered off to one side and lowered their tails. The buck continued straight ahead, his "follow me" flag waving and the hound dogs followed the buck.

Your chances of seeing a deer on the trail are good, especially in fairly open woods near the top of a mountain. If you walk slowly and quietly you may suddenly become aware that a deer is watching you. If you stand still and make no sudden movements the deer will probably stay put, and may even resume feeding. If you move closer it will bound away, springing over brush and fallen trees with such grace that it almost seems to float in slow motion through the air.

Deer like semi-open places, rather than meadows or deep woods. It's hard to drive any distance on Skyline Drive without seeing one, especially near developed areas. When you see one ahead, beside the Drive, please slow down. The deer may become alarmed and bound away when your car gets close and it will often choose to bound across the road in front of you.

In the areas around visitor facilities deer are sometimes surprisingly tame. Please keep your distance. Making wild animals dependent and trusting is not doing them a favor and is totally contradictory to the park's purpose. Do not offer food. Any food you might have to offer is, for a deer, junk food and providing it is not good for their health.

 

  Fox

Two kinds, red and gray are here. The red fox is not too common in the park. It prefers open spaces and, apparently, lower altitudes. The gray fox, which does well in the woods, is relatively common. Some believe the gray is the more attractive of the two, with delicate shadings of gray, white, and rusty red. They're shy, and move about mostly at night, so that seeing one requires a little luck. But in many places, such as the Big Meadows area, if you're out just before dark and watching the road or trail well ahead, you may be lucky.

 

  Skunks


Striped Skunk
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

The park has two species - striped and spotted. The striped skunk is larger and much more common - the one you're probably familiar with. You may occasionally see a skunk in the daytime, but they prefer darkness. You're most likely to see one in the light of your headlights on the Drive, or in campgrounds. Skunks are not at all shy, for several reasons: they're nearsighted, they're moderately stupid, and they're formidably armed.

But skunks are generally inoffensive and slow to anger. A skunk will spray only if a larger animal actually seizes it or seems about to do so, or if it's hit by a car. But a skunk will often threaten a possible enemy, and that's sometimes as effective as spraying. There are four ways to threaten: first, by snapping the teeth, like a terrier; second, repeatedly striking the ground with both front feet; third, flicking the tail: and finally, raising the tail, spinning around, and backing toward the enemy.

If you're camping at Big Meadows in late winter you may hear squeals in the night, often followed by a strong smell of skunk. Late winter is the mating season. When two males meet, they may engage in a good rough-and-tumble fight, snapping and biting, and squealing with anger. What you smell is probably just leakage due to excitement, rather than deliberate spraying.


Spotted Skunk
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

The spotted skunk is rather uncommon, and much smaller - about the size of a large squirrel - black, irregularly spotted with white, and irresistibly attractive. It can spray, and it gets as much respect from foxes as the larger striped skunk. Its threatening gesture consists of a handstand; it actually balances on its two front paws, and can hold that position for some time. The spotted skunk is a southern animal; the park is the northern limit of its range.

If you find yourself unexpectedly very close to a skunk, don't be alarmed. Just hold still, and wait for it to go away.

 

 
  And Other Mammals


Bobcat
Photo taken by Sean Bordner

Bobcat. Fairly common, but shy. You may see one from your car at night. They are sometimes seen on the trails, especially in late winter; that's mating season, and they get bolder.

Raccoon. Common. The best place to see one is beside the Drive after dark. They sometimes pass through the campgrounds during the night.

Beaver. This species is rare in the higher elevations but it can be found in some of the rivers and streams along the park boundary.

Groundhog (or Woodchuck). Quite common in clearings and beside the Drive. They often eat within a few feet of the pavement, and pay no attention to passing cars. (As long as they keep moving, that is. If you slow down or stop, the groundhog will disappear down its hole.)


Coyote (taken Sept. 2010)
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Coyote. You may be surprised to know that there are coyotes in the park. Ten years ago coyote sightings in Virginia were rare. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, coyotes first appeared in southwestern Virginia in the 1950s and now live in every county of the state including the Washington suburbs. They are active at all hours, but are very elusive and clever at avoiding humans, so your chances of seeing one are not great. At night they can sometimes be heard calling to one another across the hollows. It is a sometimes eerie, but still beautiful sound. Although coyotes will do their best to stay out of your way, they are very territorial and can pose a danger to wayward pets that wander into their territory. That's another good reason to keep Fido on a leash.


Chipmunk. Very common. On a long summer hike you'll probably see dozens of them; they'll scold you with a chittering sound that could be mistaken for a bird call. In late summer you may hear a slow, steady "chock, chock, chock ...." at some distance in the woods. That, too, is a chipmunk.

 

  More About Mammals


Raccoon
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

If you'd like to know more about the mammals, check the sales literature at the Visitor Centers or from the Shenandoah National Park Association.

Particularly recommended are:

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals of North America. 937 pages, with over 374 full-color photographs.

Peterson First Guide to Mammals, by Peter Alden. 128 pages. A concise field guide to 197 common mammals of North America.

A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, by Olaus J. Murie. (Peterson Field Guide Series), 376 pages. Pen-and-ink drawings. Tracks are less interesting than the animals that make them, but they're sometimes a lot easier to find - especially when there's snow on the ground.

Who Pooped in the Park, by Gary Roberts. Shenandoah National Park's own version of this popular Farcounty Press book which explains its title and appeals to children of all ages.

 

  Birds


Barred Owl
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Shenandoah National Park is a rewarding place for bird watchers; we have about 200 species. You can buy a checklist of birds at the Visitor Centers. For serious bird watching you'll need a field book, binoculars, and, if possible, a tendency to get up early in the morning. The sales outlets and the Shenandoah National Park Association, have a number of books on birds, including the following:

Birds of Shenandoah National Park, A Naturalist's View, by Terry and Patressa Lindsay, Photographs by Rob Simpson.

A Field Guide to the Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson. (Peterson Field Guide Series). 431 pages. This book covers all the birds of eastern and central North America, and all of them are illustrated in color. The illustrations have distinguishing field marks indicated, which makes identification easier.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds of Eastern Region of North America. 797 pages, with 646 full-color photographs of 508 species.

Peterson First Guide to Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson. 128 pages. A concises field guide to 188 common birds of North America for those starting out in bird watching.

Following are some brief notes on a few birds that might come to your attention in the park even if you're not a serious bird watcher.

 

  Soaring Birds

Soaring birds float on currents of air, rarely flapping their wings. You're sure to see them if you climb to a peak or a cliff and then sit quietly for a while. Hightop and Stony Man are especially good. Vultures and ravens sail by in front of you, sometimes surprisingly close. Here's how to tell them apart:


Turkey Vulture
Photo taken by Kaleen Vaden

Turkey vulture (or "buzzard"). Wingspan up to six feet, tail rather long and narrow. The wings, as seen from below, are two-toned: black and dark gray. When an adult flies close you'll see its red head. (The head of the young is black.) It has two habits that distinguish it from other soaring birds in the park. First, it soars with its wings forming a flattened "V," rather than straight out from the body. Second, it rocks and tilts as it soars, as if trying to keep its balance.

Black vulture. Less common than the turkey vulture, although growing in number as it spreads its range, and a little smaller and heavier so that it flaps more and soars less. And whereas the flapping of the turkey vulture seems slow and easy, that of the black vulture seems quick and labored. Its tail is rather short and square. Its best distinguishing mark is a whitish patch on the underside of each wing, near the tip.

Both vultures are useful scavengers, and contrary to superstition they do not spread disease. Neither vulture makes any vocal sound except a grunting noise when it's disturbed. Some day, when you're hiking after a rain, you may be treated to an unforgettable sight - a flock of vultures perched in a tree with wings spread out to dry.

Raven. Smaller than vultures, and pure black; its tail, as seen from below, is large and wedge-shaped. Its soaring ability is limited; it alternately soars and flaps except, that is, near the steep western slopes of the mountain, where strong updrafts are common. There, all three birds can soar for long minutes without a single flap.

From a distance, a raven looks very much like a crow. When you see the two together it's obvious that the raven is nearly twice as big; when you see only one, there's room for doubt. The call of the crow is a high-pitched caw or cah. The raven has a lower-pitched call, a hoarse croak-- cr-r-r-uck, or possibly gr-r-ronk. That's an early warning call; you're not likely to hear it on the cliffs where the birds are soaring. But as you hike through the woods, a raven may fly over so low that you can hear the air whistling through its wingtips and it will croak to spread the word of your presence. (The raven language has at least a 100 words, but the early warning call is the only one you're likely to hear.)

Peregrine Falcon. They're back! Peregrine falcons have returned and are successfully nesting in Shenandoah National Park. Let's back up a bit. With wide spread use of the pesticide DDT, peregrine falcons and a number of other species were brought close to extinction in the lower forty-eight states. The pesticide caused females to lay eggs with very fragile shells. The chicks could not survive. The federal government banned DDT and put peregrine falcons on the endangered species list. In the late 1980s Shenandoah National Park joined a program to restore peregrines to wild areas, hatching and releasing over 40 chicks in the park. In 1994 there was successful nesting of falcons in the park, the first in these mountains in over forty years. The best chance of getting a glimpse of these exciting birds is in the vicinity of Stony Man. Check with a park ranger for up-to-date information.

The peregrine falcon, a sleek powerful bird, is distinguished by its pointed wings, narrow tail, and quick wing beats. In size, near that of a crow, it has a strong face pattern with heavy black, "sideburns." It hunts, mainly medium sized birds, diving from high above in spectacular dives or swoops. Peregrine numbers are still low in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia compared to pre DDT populations. It is hoped that this beautiful bird will continue to make a gradual recovery.

 

  Wild Turkey


Wild Turkey Gobbler
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

This is by far the largest bird in the park. Except for a few minor details it looks just like the domestic turkey. The turkey is not very good at flying, and except when it's in immediate danger, prefers to walk or run. You may occasionally see a single turkey, or a flock of them, on the trails. If you hold still you'll be able to watch them for quite a while as they run, or walk, away from danger. They travel in flocks of from six to fifteen birds. But you may see single birds, and on rare occasions a flock of more than thirty.

During breeding season - early spring - a flock consists of the dominant male in the area plus his harem. In April, in the early morning, you may hear the male turkey gobble to assemble his flock, just before or just after he leaves the roost for the day.

 

 
  Ruffed Grouse


Ruffed Grouse
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

The grouse is a large, reddish-brown relative of the chicken. It looks like one, especially when you see it crossing Skyline Drive, where it tends to be a rather careless pedestrian. In the woods, it usually stays under cover. When a grouse is hidden near the trail it will wait till you get close, then take off suddenly with a loud whir of wings that can be truly startling. In late spring and early summer, when the chicks are still small,the mother puts on a skillful "broken wing" act; as you approach she flops pitifully ahead, hoping to lead you away from the chicks.

Some day, as you walk a mountain trail in spring, you may suddenly become aware of your own heartbeat, and note with mild alarm that it's beating faster and faster. But it isn't your heart; it's the drumming of a male grouse. He drums to attract a female, or to announce possession of territory, or both. The grouse mounts some favorite low perch, grasps it firmly so as not to fly away, and then beats the air with his wings, faster and faster; thump ..... thump .... thump... thump.. thump, thump thump- rup-rup-rup-rrrrrrrrrr.

 

 
  Woodcock

The woodcock, a relative of the snipe, is one of the first migratory birds to return to Shenandoah in the spring. It has a chunky body, a large head, short neck and legs, and a ridiculously long beak, which it thrusts into soft moist earth in search of worms. The tip of the upper mandible moves independently, so that the woodcock can grasp a worm under ground and pull it out. The plumage is barred and mottled with buff, brown, gray, and black - the color of leaves and duff of the forest floor. The bird is so well camouflaged that he seems to think he's invisible. You can sometimes get close enough to touch him before he will fly.

From mid-March to the end of April, in the partly open places such as Big Meadows, the woodcock does his sky dance, a courtship ritual. The light has to be just right. When the sun is down, and the evening star first appears, that's the time to start. The dance will go on for half an hour, until it gets too dark. (Unless there's a full moon, when it may go on all night.)

The dance begins with the male woodcock on the ground, where he will periodically give a call that's been variously represented as peent, or beezp, or "a Bronx cheer under water". Heatwole called it a loudly voiced bzzzzp. Then the woodcock springs into the air and spirals upward, the wind whistling through his wings, his windsong getting louder and shriller as he reaches the top of his flight, some 300 feet above the ground. He pauses; then he dives, darts, and zig-zags quickly downward, now with a clear warbling whistle added to the windsong. Then silence, and you know he's on the ground. Then bzzzzp again, in preparation for another flight.

 

  Herps


Five-lined Skink (Sept. 1964)
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

"Herps" is a slang term for reptiles and amphibians - which is to say lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, toads, and salamanders - the subject matter of the science of herpetology. In lower elevations one of the true harbingers of spring is the song of the chorus frogs, the spring peepers. They fill the early evening hours with more music than any other time of year. The summer crickets try hard to match it but this editor thinks the chorus frogs win the competition. They live most of the year on land or in bushes or trees, but return to ponds or vernal pools in the spring to mate and provide a delightful symphony. Among the books available at the visitor centers is:

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of North America. 743 pages, with 657 full-color photographs.


Box Turtle
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

Timber Rattlesnake
(Black Phase)
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Timber Rattlesnake
(Yellow Phase)
Photo taken by Matt House

 

  Invertebrates


Tree Hopper
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

Shenandoah is not rich in insect species, compared with the more varied habitats in the Valley. Nevertheless there's enough here to keep you busy if entomology is your hobby. Among the books available at the Visitor Centers is:

Peterson First Guide to Insects, by Christopher Leahy. 128 pages. A concise field guide to 200 common insects of North America.

 

  A Note on Collecting

The park rule against collecting applies to everything - including insects. An exception might be made for a professional entomologist associated with a university or a government agency. If that describes you, write to park headquarters for information about a collecting permit.

The best way to collect insects is with your camera. New digital cameras, coupled with computer editing and storage, open up a whole range of possibilities for youngsters just getting started in learning about nature, and for others who want to document the scope of their field experience. Chasing butterflies with a net may be good exercise for your legs; getting close-up pictures of butterflies is a perfect exercise for your patience and allows you to savor your field experience year round.

   
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