Last summer, I lived at California Beach in Tagish, Yukon. Living in the Yukon can make one a bit complacent when it comes to bears. I don’t always feel like packing heat—my bear spray—when I go to the outhouse. I am better at doing that when I go for a walk.
One day I walked out to take a nature call. I had the sense that I needed to check for bears, and there he was, a young black bear, standing in my yard. I decided to return to the cabin, grateful I had followed my intuition.
I made one mistake with that bear: I didn’t make sure it knew I was a human (by talking to it and making myself look big). A bear’s eyesight is not great. Back in the house, I looked out the window and the bear looked right at me. With just a pane of glass between us, I didn’t feel so safe.
Luckily, this girl keeps the yard very clean and free of any bear attractants, specifically no bird feeder full of bird seeds. I never quite understood how we are told not to feed wildlife, but feeding birds is okay. In my experience, the mice appreciate the sunflower seeds, too, which leads to an increased mouse population. No more feeding birds. I don’t discriminate—equal rights for all, which means nobody gets fed.
The local conservation officer asked me to talk to neighbours about the bear being there, to make them aware. I had recently moved to the neighbourhood and found out that the whole neighbourhood was aware of the bear—except for me.
Talking to the neighbours, I heard things like, “Oh yes, he has been feeding off my bird feeder all spring. We enjoy watching him in the yard.” I get that. It is nice to watch wildlife in the yard. Unfortunately, that kind of behaviour leads to bears being killed and humans getting hurt.
Bears will move through a neighbourhood and if they don’t get any food, they will move on. If they find sunflower seeds in a bird feeder, in early spring, when protein and fat are scarce in nature, they will punch that into their internal GPS and frequently return to check on the situation.
Spring is a great time to clean our livers. There are dandelions and other herbs that support that process for bears and humans. Nature provides just what the bears need, and oily sunflower seeds or suet is not it.
Once spring comes around, birds can find enough food, and due to the warmer temperatures, their food requirements are lower. The Yukon Bird Club recommends on their website to “only feed birds during months when bears are denning or are least active—late October to mid-April.”
One day, a young black bear snatched someone’s wiener buns from off their truck bed. The bear dined alfresco under a spruce tree and then chased after the neighbour’s family, to protect its food source.
No humans were injured, but the young bear was already habituated to people. Bear bangers and air horns were just part of the entertainment and were not perceived as a threat.
The bear ended up being destroyed. As far as I can see, it could have been prevented by keeping yards free of attractants and chasing bears off early in the season before they became habituated to people.
Even relocating isn’t a solution. Often bears get shipped off into other areas and make their way back to the community they came from. I have a list of favourite restaurants in Vancouver, and I work my way down the list for a good meal or two. I can’t blame the bears for doing the same.
Last year, 55 bears were killed due to human-bear conflicts. According to the CBC, 33 bear deaths (in 2019) mark an “average” human-bear conflict season in the Yukon. Imagine reading that 33 humans being shot in the Yukon would be an average number of deaths. That doesn’t include the ones that died of old age or from other causes.
I am writing this article to encourage you to care enough to take down your bird feeder during the summer and ask your neighbours and friends to do the same. Taking down bird feeders, as soon as bears are coming out of hibernation, and leaving them down until November 1, is an easy way to enjoy birds and to keep the bears and us alive and healthy.
If you still want to attract birds in the warmer months, you can replace your bird feeder with a bird bath of clean water for the birds to drink from and preen in. It is unlikely that a bear will end up swimming around in that.