In the Field

Angry Bear – Bear Warning Signs & Body Language

Angry Bear – Bear Warning Signs and Body Language

Bears are highly expressive animals, and while they don’t make all that many vocalizations, they communicate a great deal through their body language…both with other bears, as well as with human beings.

The different species of bears communicate somewhat differently from each other and they each have their own unique behaviors and individual personalities which are based on many factors, such as age, available food sources, etc. Some bears are laid back and rather docile, and others are much more assertive and aggressive.

For this article, we’ll take a look at the body language of the coastal brown bears of Alaska, since many people, especially fisherman, can encounter these bears quite regularly during the summer and autumn months. More specifically, we’ll take a look at the warning signs that bears quite clearly communicate through their body language when they’re getting aggravated, angry, or if they feel threatened by your presence.

fisherman encounters Kodiak bear
Encountering bears while fishing in Alaska can be a common occurrence in many areas.

Let me first point out that before one heads into bear country for any activity, it’s vitally important to be well educated about the bears you may encounter and how to behave safely while on their turf. I’ve done a number of videos on these topics which you check out at my YouTube channel. Let me also point out that bears and people can coexist peacefully and safely and get along just fine when proper bear safety protocol is followed, which is an incredible experience!

However, sometimes a bear’s patience wears thin. Some bears, especially those who live in more remote areas of wilderness, are not used to human presence…and don’t welcome it. And while other bears are much more tolerant of we humans sharing the rivers and the woods with them, they still have their limits which need to be respected.

 

Non-Drowsy Yawning and Approaching

One of the first, more subtle signs that a brown bear is getting a little upset with your presence is what looks like a yawn. This is a low-level sign of stress and an indication that it’s time for you to calmly, slowly, safely move on. Along with this yawning display, a bear may start slowly moving in closer to you…not yet in a manner of an aggressive charge, but as a means of letting you know that you’re in their space and you need to back off.

bear yawn - sign of stress
A bear that appears to “yawn” in your presence is a low-level sign of stress and one of the first warning signs that it is time for you to calmly, slowly move out of the area.

 

Huffing & Woofing

If a brown bear starts to huff and woof at you like a dog would, that’s a more obvious, elevated sign of aggravation. This behavior can accelerate to the point of becoming loud, aggressive woofs, stomping the ground, and even bluff charging. If a bear displays any of these behaviors, again, stop whatever you’re doing immediately, and back off slowly and deliberately, while never turning your back on a bear, never running (which may trigger a chase response) and never looking the bear directly in the eye…which bears perceive as an aggressive challenge.

bear warning signs and body language: woofing, huffing, growling
A bear that “huffs” or “woofs” at you is one that you need to calmly get away from immediately!

 

Commonly Mistaken Non-Aggressive Body Language

While it’s important to be aware of these warning signs of bear body language, it’s also good to know what behaviors are not necessarily warning signs or displays of aggression. One of the most commonly mistaken behaviors is of a bear standing up on its hind legs. When a bear does this, it can obviously be a very intimidating sight, as brown bears are HUGE and tower over people in height. However, in most cases, bears do this simply as a means of getting a higher vantage point and having a better look at whatever caught their attention. Also, if a bear is casually strolling by on the other side of a river, at a safe distance from you, or sauntering across a beach or tidal flat area, it’s generally nothing to get startled by. The bear is simply headed to wherever it’s going. So enjoy the experience, while always making it a point to not do anything to alarm or attract the bear closer to you. Again, always do your homework before heading into bear country, obey and follow bear safety protocol at all times, and get well educated about the bears in the area you’ll be visiting.

bear warning signs and body language: standing up on hind legs
A bear that stands up on his or her hind legs is not necessarily an aggressive bear. Bears do this primarily to simply have a better look around at whatever it was that caught their attention.

If you’d like to check out lots more bear stories and videos, be sure to subscribe to the Wild Revelation Outdoors YouTube Channel.

To see more photos, check out the video version of this story by clicking here.

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How to photograph bears. Photography book. Joseph Classen.
To learn more about bears, check out my book, How to Photograph Bear – The Beauty of the Beast.