In the Field

What Do Bears Eat?

what do bears eat?

There are many different species and subspecies of bears throughout the world, including the polar bear, brown bear (of which the grizzly and Kodiak bear are subspecies of) the American black bear, spectacled bear, Asiatic black bear, sun bear, and the panda bear. Though they’re often referred to as carnivores, bears are actually omnivores, and they eat a wide variety of foods during different times of the year, including plants, animals, fish, insects, carrion, and even garbage.

When bears come out from their dens in the spring, nutritious food sources can be hard to come by. Many bears end up scavenging winter-killed animals, dried fish carcasses, and whatever vegetation or other carrion they can find. As the snow melts and the spring months continue to warm things up, more food becomes available, and bears begin eating a variety of grasses, roots, plant bulbs, ground-dwelling rodents, beavers, and other similar emerging food sources. Many bears also prey on newborn elk, moose, deer, caribou, sheep, mountain goats, and other animals who are having their young during the spring months. Some bears also resort to cannibalism during the lean months and will eat bears of their own kind, especially their cubs, as male bears often do for a number of reasons, as well as prey on other species of bears, such as grizzly bears who often kill and eat black bears.

bear predation and cannibalism
Black bears are sometimes hunted, killed, and eaten by grizzly/brown bears.

 

As spring evolves into summer, bears add to their diet things such as grubs, ants, beetles, worms, and other insects that they can dig up or find by ripping apart trees and rotting logs. By late July or so, bears being stuffing themselves on a wide variety of berries, and in coastal areas, as the salmon runs get underway, bears begin feasting on the high protein, high fat fish to pack on as much weight as possible.

A Kodiak bear charging a pool of salmon

Another major source of food for coastal bears (especially polar bears) is marine mammals and even things such as dead whales that sometimes get killed by orcas and wash up on a beach, which bears will feast on for weeks.

During the fall months of the year, bears enter what’s known as hyperphagia and they turn into eating machines! One should always make it a point to be safe in bear country, but at this time of the year, one needs to be even more cautious, as bears can get very temperamental as they are eating everything in sight and desperately trying put on fat for the winter. For bears who live in more wooded or agricultural areas such as farms and orchards, a big part of their fall diet is acorns and nuts, fruits, and crop foods of all kinds.

As the winter months approach and the snow begins to fall, many bears head to their dens. However, some bears don’t. Some bears hibernate off and on throughout the winter months, coming out periodically to feed on winter-killed food sources, and some don’t hibernate at all, especially bears in warmer climates. These are the bears that often get into trouble, as they look for food in urban areas such as trash, pet food, bird seed, and whatever else they can get their paws on.

A brown bear entering it's den for winter hibernation.
A brown bear entering it’s den for winter hibernation.

To wrap things up, bears live by their nose and by their stomach and eat a wide variety of foods at any given time of the year, if the opportunity presents itself.

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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.